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Polly Thayer (Starr) papers, 1846-2008, bulk 1921-2008

Biographical Note

Polly Thayer (Starr) (1904-2006) was a Boston painter of portraits, landscapes, and still lifes.
Ethel Randolph Thayer, known as Polly, was born in Boston in 1904, the daughter of Professor Ezra Ripley Thayer, also Dean of the Harvard Law School, and Ethel Randolph Thayer, née Clark. Thayer began her drawing lessons at an early age and later attended the Westover Boarding School in Middlebury, Connecticut. Although she signed some of her early paintings Ethel Thayer, by the end of the 1920s she generally signed her work Polly Thayer. She continued to use Polly Thayer as her brush name after she married, although in 1967 she changed her name legally from Ethel Randolph Starr to Polly Thayer Starr.
After graduating from Westover School, Thayer traveled to China, Korea, and Japan with her brother and mother. While in Japan, the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923 struck just as their ship was about to leave Yokohama. In the devastation that followed, their ship was used as a hospital and Polly Thayer assisted with nursing the injured.
After returning home, Thayer began her formal studies at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts from 1923 to 1925 where she took painting classes taught by Philip Hale. She eventually left the Boston Museum and began private painting lessons with Hale. While working under Hale, she painted a large nude, Circles, which was awarded the National Academy of Design's coveted Julius Hallgarten Prize in 1929. She also spent the summer of 1924 in Provincetown studying with Charles Hawthorne and traveled to Europe where she studied at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. She later studied in Madrid and, from 1930-1933, at the Art Students League in New York City.
Thayer's first solo exhibition was held on New Year's Eve, 1930 at the Doll & Richards gallery in Boston. The Globe reviewer declared it "surely settles her status as one of the foremost painters in the country." The success of the exhibition led to numerous portrait commissions --any of them exhibited at Wildenstein gallery in New York City --and launched Thayer's career as a portrait artist. Her portrait subjects include Judith Anderson, Jacques Barzun, Maurice Evans, Lewis Galantiere, Robert Hale, May Sarton, John Wheelwright, and Agnes Yarnall, among others. Additional galleries that subsequently gave Thayer solo shows were the Sessler Gallery in Philadelphia; Contemporary Arts and Pietrantonio Galleries in New York; and in Boston the Guild of Boston Artists, Grace Horne Galleries, Child's Gallery, The Copley Society, the St. Botolph Club and the Boston Public Library.
In 1933, Polly Thayer married Donald Starr, a Boston lawyer and avid sailor. They married in Italy and honeymooned in Paris while he took a break from a sailing trip around the world on his schooner "Pilgrim." They had two daughters, Victoria and Dinah. In 1942 Thayer joined the Society of Friends (Quakers) which became an important part of her life and identity. She was active in many educational, charitable and cultural institutions and local clubs. Thayer had long been fascinated by the dynamics, meaning and variety of visual experience. In 1981 the Friends Journal published her essay "On Seeing," a paper she continued to refine until she was ninety-seven.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Polly Thayer began focusing more on landscapes and still lifes and continued to be prolific artist, exhibiting in numerous solo and group exhibits in Boston, New York, and Philadelphia. In her later years she renewed an early affiliation with Vose Galleries which she maintained for the rest of her life. In 2001, she was the only living artist whose work was included in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibition "A Studio of Her Own" and a banner of her portrait of May Sarton hung over the entrance to the Museum.
Polly Thayer (Starr) died on August 30, 2006.