Thayer was born in Boston and spent his youth in New Hampshire. In the wilds of New England, he learned to observe nature with scientific accuracy, laying the groundwork for his later theories of protective coloring, upon which the art of camouflage was developed in the First World War. He studied painting first in Brooklyn, then at the National Academy of Design in New York, and later in the Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. He is most widely known for his portraits of women and children, although animal and flower subjects, still life, and landscape also interested him.
Thayer painted landscape and still-life subjects on occasion. This sparse, but dramatic composition of a peony in a pewter-lined copper bowl was probably inspired by the work of John La Farge, who painted widely-admired floral still-lifes during the 1860s and 1870s. Like La Farge, Thayer emphasized dramatic lighting effects and contrasting textures, such as the soft petals and the hard surface of the bowl. The casual, uncontrived arrangement of the composition also recalls La Farge. Thayer depicts the lavish bloom of the peony, a late nineteenth-century favorite, as an almost vaporous confection of cool pinks pulled together by several decisive strokes of the brush. The blossom’s natural appearance is similar in theme to Thayer’s depiction of unaffected, yet beautiful young women.