John La Farge

John La Farge (1835-1910), American painter, muralist, stained-glass designer, and writer, was one of the most multifaceted American artists of his time.

John La Farge was born in New York City on March 31, 1835. He graduated from Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Md., in 1853, and studied law in 1854-1855. He went to Europe in 1856 to study and travel, remaining until the end of 1857. In Paris he met many prominent literary and artistic figures and studied painting briefly with Thomas Couture. In England, La Farge saw the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters and in Germany the rich collections of Old Masters. On his return to America he decided to take up painting and settled in Newport, R.I., where he studied with William Morris Hunt. In 1860 La Farge married.

Though by today's standards some of La Farge's paintings seem marred by an obvious eclecticism, at his best, especially in his landscapes, he shows an admirable feeling for the realism of light and the modeling and arrangement of forms, as well as skill in eliminating nonessential elements, as in his Bishop Berkeley's Rock (1868). His work varies from flower pieces that are often distinguished by a suave handling of watercolor, to self-consciously romantic themes of the mysterious and the frightening, as in his famous Wolf Charmer, which was used as an illustration in 1867 for the Riverside Magazine. A frequent illustrator, La Farge did illustrations for Enoch Arden (1865) by the English poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

Working in murals and in painted glass, La Farge became one of America's principal decorators of the interiors of churches and prominent private residences. In 1876 he did the murals for Boston's Trinity Church. Two years later he executed his first important work in the then-obsolescent art of stained glass, the Battle Window in Harvard University's Memorial Hall. In 1882-1884 he made the stained glass, the carved and inlaid panels, and other decorations for two Vanderbilt houses in New York City. In 1887 he executed the large, Renaissance-inspired Ascension mural for New York City's Church of the Ascension and the stained-glass windows for Boston's Trinity Church.

In 1886 La Farge and his friend the historian Henry Adams visited Japan. In 1890-1891 they traveled to the South Seas. The best of La Farge's South Sea paintings, done in both watercolor and oil, combine a sense of the exotic with the immediacy of precise anthropological observation, such as Maua, Our Boatman (1891).

Along with his varied artistic activities La Farge found time for writing and lecturing. His publications included An Artist's Letters from Japan (1897), The Higher Life in Art (1905), and Reminiscences of the South Seas (1911). A series of lectures he gave in 1893 was published as Considerations on Painting (1895). He died in Providence, R.I., on Nov. 14, 1910.


Further Reading on John La Farge

Royal Cortissoz, John La Farge: A Memoir and Study (1911), contains little analysis of the works and mediocre illustrations but is best for biographical miscellany. Kennedy Galleries, Inc., John La Farge (1968), the catalog of a show held at this gallery, establishes La Farge's importance in both its illustrations and the short, sensible introduction.

Additional Biography Sources

La Farge, John, An American artist in the South Seas, London; New York: KPI, 1987.