Therapeutic Beauty

Document Type


Publication Date

Fall 2010


Art and Art History



Publication Title

Hektoen International: A Journal of Medical Humanities


In the late 1880s, the painter Abbott Handerson Thayer (1849-1921) and his family began summering in rural Dublin, New Hampshire, near his childhood home in Keene, where the artist started painting the classically-inspired angels and Madonnas for which he is best known. This essay examines some of these works using a novel interpretation, by linking the subject matter to the disease and death of Thayer’s first wife, Kate. Over the years scholars have regarded Kate’s death cursorily, as the result of melancholia and a “pulmonary complication,” but recent recognition that she died from tuberculosis offers a new avenue of understanding. Diagnosed with severe melancholia in 1888 following the death of her father and her daughter’s sickness from scarlet fever, Kate was initially hospitalized, then admitted to a Massachusetts asylum. Her already fragile condition was soon complicated by tuberculosis, a discovery that prompted doctors to move her to a healthier environment. Within a month of her arrival at a Baldwinsville, Massachusetts, sanatorium, however, Kate Thayer’s condition rapidly declined. She died on May 3, 1891.


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A longer version of this article was published in American Art, Volume 18, Number 3. © 2004 by The University of Chicago Press.

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