John La Farge

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About this artist

An important figure in the late nineteenth century, John Lewis Frederick Joseph La Farge was respected not only for his paintings and work in the decorative arts but also for his writings on art and aesthetics. Raised in a prosperous French Catholic family in New York, La Farge first studied law. Not until after a trip to France in 1856, where he associated with notable writers and artists, did he decide to become an artist. Although he only briefly studied painting formally, with Thomas Couture (1815-1879), he spent hours drawing from old master paintings in the Louvre. On his return to America in 1857 he stopped in England, where he first saw the work of the English Pre-Raphaelites then on display at the Art Treasures Exhibition in Manchester. He became familiar with oriental art and in 1886 traveled to the Far East with historian Henry Adams; four years later they visited the South Sea Islands together.

La Farge’s association with WILLIAM MORRIS HUNT in Newport, Rhode Island, was crucial to his early development. Hunt encouraged La Farge to explore and synthesize a number of interests. In his landscapes and floral still-life compositions of the 1860s La Farge experimentally combined concepts borrowed from the Pre-Raphaelite and Barbizon painters with contemporary theories of optics and color. Extremely erudite, he produced art that often alluded to earlier literary and artistic sources. During the 1860s he also illustrated books and magazines, including an edition of Alfred Tennyson’s Enoch Arden (1865) and Riverside Magazine for Young People.

La Farge developed a new method to produce a pearly, opalescent glass, and with the commission in 1876 to decorate Trinity Church in Boston he became the most prominent muralist and designer of stained-glass windows in the United States. Among his many religious and civic projects were the Church of Saint Paul the Apostle in New York, 1884-99, and the Baltimore Court House, 1905-7. His imagery for public buildings usually was based on allegories and religious iconography. For the private homes of Cornelius and William Vanderbilt he designed floral windows that are among the most outstanding examples of the turn-of-the-century Aesthetic Movement in the United States. Among his numerous publications are Consideration on Painting (1895), An Artist’s Letters from Japan (1897), and The Higher Life in Art (1908).

Cecilia Waern, John La Farge: Artist and Writer (New York: Macmillan, 1896) § Royal Cortissoz, John La Farge: A Memoir and a Study (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1911) § Helene Barbara Weinberg, The Decorative Work of John La Farge (New York: Garland, 1977), with bibliography § Henry Adams, "John La Farge, 1830-1870: From Amateur to Artist," Ph.D. diss., Yale University, 1980, with bibliography § Pittsburgh, Carnegie Museum of Art, and others, John La Farge, exh. cat., 1987 (copublished with National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., and Abbeville Press, New York), with essays by Henry Adams, James L. Yarnall, Kathleen A. Foster, H. Barbara Weinberg, and others, chronology by Yarnall and Mary A. La Farge, and lists of exhibitions, sales, and locations of decorative works by Yarnall, Amy B. Werbel, and Henry A. La Farge.