Sunday, June 6, 2010


John La Farge by Royal Cortissoz, 1911
Source Wikipedia

John La Farge (1835–1910), one of the most innovative and versatile American artists of the nineteenth century, achieved reknown as a painter in oils and watercolors, as a magazine and book illustrator, as a muralist and designer of stained-glass windows, and as an author of articles and books on art and travel. A quintessential "Renaissance man" of the American Renaissance, he responded to and encouraged the eclectic tastes and interests of his sophisticated patrons.
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Born in New York City in 1835 into a wealthy, cosmopolitan family of French descent, La Farge’s intellectual curiosity and artistic proclivity was fostered from an early age. As a child he took drawing lessons with his grandfather, a miniature painter, and studied with an English watercolorist during grammar school. He later studied painting under Régis Francois Gignoux after receiving his degree from Saint John’s College and Mount Saint Mary’s University. Although La Farge’s father had aspirations for him to become a lawyer, he decided to pursue art after a trip abroad to Europe from 1856-1857. La Farge studied briefly in the studio of Thomas Couture but preferred independent study by observing and copying Old Master drawings. Upon his return to the United States, he married Margaret Mason Perry and moved to Newport, RI, where he worked with the artist William Morris Hunt and lived until 1879.
(James Yarnall, John La Farge, Watercolors and Drawings, Yonkers: Hudson River Museum of Westchester, 1990)
His trip abroad greatly influenced the development of his early style. According to the artist himself:
“A visit to the Manchester Exhibition and a short stay in England determined for many years certain admirations, and confirmed me in the direction of my ideas of colour. The few pre-Raphaelite paintings that I saw, and the drawings of some of the leaders in that movement, appealed strongly to me ... the pre-Raphaelites, as seen through my eyes — Millais, and Hunt, and Rossetti, and Ford Madox Brown (Sir Edward Burne-Jones had not yet appeared within my horizon) — seemed to me to be willing to meet many of the great problems of colour, and my youthful energies sympathised with the stress and intensity of their dramatic programme. These likings I retained later when I began to think again of painting.”
Perhaps the most versatile American artist of his time, John La Farge produced innovative flower and landscape paintings which anticipated the work of the French Impressionists, created the first major American mural programs, assembled stunning stained glass windows, and executed remarkable watercolors of Japan and the South Seas.
In the late 1850s and early 1860s, La Farge became a pioneer in collecting Japanese art and incorporating Japanese effects into his work. He may have purchased his first Japanese prints in Paris in 1856, and this interest was probably encouraged by his marriage in 1860 to Margaret Perry, niece of the Commodore who had opened Japan to the West. By the early 1860s, La Farge was not only collecting Japanese prints, but was also making use of Japanese compositional ideas in his paintings to create effects which looked strange, empty, and unbalanced by Western standards. In 1869, La Farge published an essay on Japanese art, the first ever written by a Western artist, in which he particularly noted the asymmetrical compositions, high horizons, and clear, heightened color of Japanese prints…..

Agathon to Erosanthe, votive wreath
Oil on canvas, 1861
Private collection
From ARC

Flowers in a Persian Porcelain Water Bowl
Oil on canvas, c1861
Corcoran Gallery of Art (Washington, DC)
From ARC

Flowers in a Japanese Vase
Oil on wood, 1864
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
From ARC

Paradise Valley
Oil on canvas, 1866-1868
Private collection
From ARC

Beginning in 1886, La Farge traveled to Japan with his friend Henry Adams and later traveled to the South Seas from 1890-1891. These trips inspired a large series of watercolors that captured the brilliant color, exotic subjects, and indigenous culture of the islands that preceded Gauguin’s images of Tahiti. In 1886, La Farge also began his career as an author. He was a prolific writer and contributor to art criticism, completing seven books on art history and theories of perception, three dozen essays, and various travel accounts by his death.
(James Yarnall, John La Farge, Watercolors and Drawings, Yonkers: Hudson River Museum of Westchester, 1990)
Cruising in the South Seas, in 1890, with his friend Mr. Henry Adams, Mr. La Farge observed the solemn and beautiful rites that had enchanted Herman Melville fifty years before. Among these nude folk the body still had its eloquence. Their occupations by land and sea awakened echoes of the Odyssey; their racial dances had a rhythmic character all their own. Into the life of these children of nature the wanderers entered sympathetically. Mataafa, the dethroned king of Samoa, was their friend. In Tahiti, by adoption of the Chieftainess Ariitamai, they gained the right to claim the God-Shark as their ancestor. With a singular intensity, simplicity, and objectivity, Mr. La Farge set him-self to sketching the islanders. With a directness that he may have learned from the Japanese, he deployed sapphire sierras and feathery green date-palms across curving and reverberant skies. But the finest sketches are those which catch the collective life of the island folk. Here you see the swaying brown torsos in the Siva dance, by night or in the obscurity of a thatched lodge; here the Taupo (a maiden charged with the duty of greeting strangers) prances down and her flower garlands fly widely; here gray elders sit in conference, or a dull girl leads a blind man along the coral strand. What distinguishes these sketches from much painting of exotic subjects is their sincerity. Think how often the Orient has been exploited in the melodramatic manner of Byron, and then take any of these South Sea studies in which the scene is portrayed for its own sake. Mr. La Farge, the sage, the fastidious cosmopolitan, had the art to become as a little child-or even as these brown friends of his-and thus he saw their life, not with their eyes (for such vision is denied them), but keenly, honestly, and with human sympathy…..
(John La Farge - An Appreciation, ( Originally Published 1916 at OldAndSold)

Fagaloa Bay, Samoa.....
Watercolour, 1890
The Century Association (New York)
From ARC

Portrait of Faase, the Taupo of the Fagaloa Bay, Samoa
Watercolour, 1891
Private collection
From ARC

At the time when America was emerging as a force in the international art world, La Farge stood out as a versatile artist and designer working in a variety of media. His extraordinary range as a student of world culture and as a muralist, painter, and designer led to his collaboration with leading American architects. Characteristically, when he first turned his attention to stained glass in the late 1870s, he showed remarkable stylistic and technical freedom in this difficult material.
(SES at Worcester Art Museum)

Hospitalitas Prosperitas
Stained glass window, 1881
Private collection
From ARC

Peacocks and Peonies
Stained glass window, 1882
From Smithsonian American Art Museum

La Farge's stained-glass windows reflect the Gilded Age fascination with medieval art and craftsmanship. The industrial revolution had made inexpensive, mass-produced glass available to anyone, but art glass remained an emblem of wealth and good taste. These windows were commissioned by Frederick Lothrop Ames, a railroad magnate who had them installed in the vast, baronial hall of his Boston house.
The tail feathers of the peacocks (above) are made of bits of glass in the "broken jewel" technique; each peony blossom is a single piece of glass molded to catch the light differently through the day. La Farge layered his colored glass as a painter would build glazes of colors to achieve the right shade. For the composition, he borrowed from many cultures: the central panels with the bird and flower motif evoke Chinese and Japanese screens; the lower panels emulate Pompeian architecture; and the transoms above recall the tympanum above the door to a Romanesque cathedral.
(Exhibition Label, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 2006)

The fruits of commerce
Stained glass window, 1881
Biltmore Estate (Asheville, North Carolina)
From ARC

Fish and Flowering Branch
Stained glass window, c1896
Museum of Fine Arts (Boston)
From ARC

Welcome, 1909
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
This large window (left) was commissioned by Mrs. George T. Bliss in 1908 for the grand staircase landing of her house at 9 East Sixty-eighth Street. The allegory of Welcome—a classically garbed figure in the pose of Andromeda—draws back a portiere with her left hand and beckons the visitor with her right. The model was Mrs. Bliss's daughter Susan Dwight Bliss, who donated many La Farge watercolors to the Metropolitan.
The window, which is in the Charles Engelhard Court of the American Wing, demonstrates an ambitious use of diverse glass effects. The figure's gown is in cloisonné and the steps are of confetti glass, paper-thin flakes of colored glass embedded in opalescent molten glass. A tour de force of design and fabrication, the window was completed just eleven months before La Farge's death.
(The Metropolitan Museum of Art)
John La Farge died at Providence, Rhode Island on November 14, 1910, and was interred in the Green-Wood Cemetary in Brooklyn.
He was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1889 for his work in the creation of opalescent glass windows. His opalescent glass windows have been compared to the medieval stained glass windows in the Cathedral at Chartres, which the artist visited in 1899 with his good friend Henry Adams. In his famous book, The Education of Henry Adams, the author described the artist: “In conversation La Farge’s mind was opaline with infinite shades and refractions of light, and with color toned down to its finest gradations. In glass it was insubordinate; it was renaissance; it asserted his personal force with depth and vehemence of tone never before seen.”
(John La Farge : a memoir and a study, by Royal Cortssoz, Canadian Libraries Ebook and Texts Archive, 1911 at

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