Sylvanus Thayer (Military Officer)

Artist: Robert Walter Weir
Sylvanus Thayer (Military Officer), a painting

Robert Walter Weir, Sylvanus Thayer (Military Officer), 1834, oil on canvas, 30 1/8 x 25 1/8 inches, Brigham Young University Museum of Art, purchase/gift of Mahonri M. Young Estate.

Commentary by Kate LeMay
Visiting Assistant Professor of Art History

In 1834, Robert Walter Weir (1803-1889) was commissioned by members of the faculty of the United States Military Academy (West Point) to honor Sylvanus Thayer with a portrait. Thayer (1785-1872) was Superintendent of West Point for sixteen years, retiring in 1832, the year before Weir himself was appointed. Remembered today as the “Father of West Point,” Thayer was a stern disciplinarian, largely responsible for creating the spirit and ethos of the American military officer. He “recognized the importance of educating officers to give their allegiance to the Constitution and to American ideals…instead of an aristocracy, his system produced a meritocracy.” Yet during the last years of Thayer’s tenure, West Point was plagued by politics characterized by a spirit of defiance, much of it directed at Thayer. He resigned as Superintendent of West Point in 1832, at which many members of the West Point faculty passed resolutions expressing their regret. Thayer feared this serious political divide would hurt the school’s reputation and objected to the resolutions, which were never made public, but the honorary portrait was still executed by Weir.

This painting is probably one of the studies that Weir made for his final portrait, which currently hangs in the dining hall for the cadet corps at West Point. Thayer is portrayed waist-length, set against a dark and undefined background. He is dressed in a formal uniform, whose severe black collar sets off his highly modeled face. At the time of this portrait, Weir was at the beginning of what would be a long career at West Point and was likely searching for a figure whose example might provide a healthy model. It is highly possible that Thayer, who stressed “the citizen in ‘citizen-soldier’ and making citizenship part of the American professional military ethos,” provided this example for Weir. The artist also looked to his environmental surroundings for inspiration, as art historian Leo Mazow argues. After Thayer left West Point, the school’s geographic situation overlooking the Hudson River continued to serve Weir as muse, “a reminder of the roles of the artist as educator, citizen, and patriot—all of which Weir took uncommonly seriously.” In looking to both the exemplary figure of Thayer and his environment to help shape his experience at West Point, Weir successfully spent forty-two years there.

 

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Thomas Fleming, “The Father of West Point,” MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History; (Autumn 2007) 20:1, 92.

Wesley Allen Riddle, “Duty, Honor, Country: Modeling citizen-soldiers,” Policy Review, Jan/Feb 1998, 48.

Leo G. Mazow, “Robert Walter Weir and the Sense of Place,” in The Weir Family, 1820-1920: Expanding the Traditions of American Art, edited by Marian Wardle. Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 2011. 34.