John La Farge

Artist Biography

American Painter, Muralist, Stained Glass Decorator, Teacher, and Writer

By Margarita Karasoulas

Recognized as the “Renaissance Man” of his time, John La Farge is celebrated as one of the most innovative and versatile artists in nineteenth century American art.

I. Biography
II. Chronology
III. Collections
IV. Exhibitions
V. Memberships
VI. Notes
VII. Suggested Resources

I. Biography

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 1879.1

During the 1860s and 70s La Farge mainly painted landscapes en plein air and experimented with still-life in his studio. He additionally worked as an illustrator for books and magazines and began lecturing on art at Harvard University. In 1876, La Farge commenced work on his first large decorative project at the Trinity Church in Boston, where he collaborated with H.H. Richardson and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. His interior was acclaimed for its rich color, lavishly painted architectural ornamentation, and brilliant stained windows. La Farge pioneered the development of opalescent luster in his stained glass by blending and layering different colored glass within a single sheet.2 He formed the La Farge Decorative Art Company in 1883 and is largely credited for the revival of stained glass in America.

From the 1870s onward, La Farge’s work in the decorative arts would dominate his career. The post-Civil War era was a golden age for national, monumental architectural projects that placed emphasis on the aesthetic merits of the interior.3 La Farge received hundreds of commissions for both public and private domains. He worked on a number of churches including the United Congregational Church, St. Thomas’s Church, the Church of the Incarnation, the Church of the Ascension, and St. Paul’s Chapel. He was also commissioned to work on secular buildings such as the Union League Club in New York and the Supreme Court Chambers at the Minnesota State Capitol. He additionally decorated the private homes of the elite, including William Watts Sherman, Cornelius Vanderbilt II, and Henry Villard. The works he created during this period are heralded as some of the most important accomplishments of his career.

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.4

La Farge was a scholar whose intellect and insatiable curiosity paralleled the ceaseless experimentation and innovation of his art. He skillfully worked with a variety of techniques and media including painting, sculpture, drawing, watercolor, illustration, architectural design, wood engraving, murals, stained glass and photography. Although La Farge was known to be an individualist, who did not align with any particular school that had emerged during this phase of American art, his eclectic works were not without precedent. As one critic noted: “It was characteristic of him to maintain a critic’s interest not only in his own methods but in those of contemporaries and forerunners; new masters and old; he did not cease to regard himself as a learner, practicing a deep humility of mind especially toward pupils and younger artists.”5

Working counter to the popularity of the Hudson River School and American genre scene painting, La Farge oriented toward the art of the European Masters including Titian, Rubens, Rembrandt, and Velazquez.6 He painted in a realistic style reminiscent of Courbet, Millet, and Manet, mixing the romanticism of Delacroix and the classicism of Ingres. He also explored Impressionism and borrowed the brilliant new color and detailed realism of the Pre-Raphaelites. La Farge was additionally an avid collector of Japanese art, which he began collecting as early as 1856. His art revealed asymmetrical, flattened compositions with heightened color and painterly surfaces.7

La Farge continued to produce art, write and travel until his death. La Farge was esteemed by critics throughout his career and cultivated a national and international reputation for his role in the decorative arts. His influence was felt by all the heavy hitters of his time, including Stanford White, Henry James, Henry Adams, H.H. Richardson, Winslow Homer, and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In his 1910 obituary the NY Tribune declared him to be “one of the greatest geniuses this country ever produced… a universal genius who belongs to all time.”8

Throughout his prolific career, John La Farge enriched the American art scene and made significant contributions to an unparalleled array of genres. He produced approximately 250 oil paintings, a dozen mural projects, 400 stained-glass windows, 4,000 drawings, and 1,200 watercolors during his lifetime. His works are collected by many major museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art Institute of Chicago, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

II. Chronology

1835 Born on March 31st in New York City
1841 Received first drawing lessons from his maternal grandfather, Louis Binsse de Saint-Victor
1848 Graduated from the Columbia Grammar School in New York City
1848-53 Attended Saint John’s College in New York City (now Fordham University) and Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland. Received a B.A. from Mount Saint Mary’s in June 1953.
1854 Began working for a law firm in New York, in addition to studying painting with Régis Francois Gignoux
1855 Awarded a Masters Degree from Mount Saint Mary’s for two years of independent study (presumably in law)
1856-7 Departed for France on April 7 where he stayed with his parents and relatives. Traveled to Brittany and Belgium. Spent a brief stint in the studio of artist Thomas Couture. Visited Denmark, Germany and Switzerland
1858 Father passed away in June. Rented studio in new 10th Street Studio Building in New York City
1859 Moved to Newport to study with William Morris Hunt
1860 Visited Louisiana and became engaged to Margaret Mason Perry. Married on October 15th
1861 Purchased house at 24 Kay Street
1862 Birth of first son, Christopher Grant. Began exhibiting at the National Academy of Design
1863 Began working with John Chandler Bancroft and imported Japanese prints through Abiel Abbott Low. Birth of first daughter, Emily Maria Louisa
1864 Lived for a year in Roxbury, MA. Left house on Kay Street due to financial problems. Began studying anatomy in Boston with William Rimmer
1865 Birth of son John Louis Bancel. In late October, stricken by hand paralysis and serious illness believed to be lead poisoning
1867 Birth of daughter, Margaret Angela
1869 Birth of son, Oliver Hazard Perry
1870 Published “Essay on Japanese Art” in Raphael Pumpellys’ Across America and Asia. Spent most of the summer in Shrub Oak, NY.
1871 Appointed lecturer on composition in art at Harvard University
1872 Lectured on Ruskin at Harvard University
1873 Purchased home on 10 Sunnyside Place in Newport. Met with Pre-Raphaelites in London. Revisited Paris and Brittany
1874 Returned from Europe in January. Completed first stained glass design for Memorial Hall at Harvard
1875 Helped organize exhibition at Daniel Cottier’s gallery in New York (organization later became Society of American Artists) which protested the jury policies of the National Academy of Design.
1876 Began work on decorations for Trinity Church. Made plans for Edward King Tomb, completed with August Saint-Gaudens and installed in Newport’s Island Cemetery.
1877 Completed major phrase of work at Trinity Church. Received commission for altarpiece in chancel of Saint Thomas Church, NY.
1878 Completed Saint Thomas commission. Held one man auction at Pierce & Co. in Boston
1879 Created first large opalescent window for residence of Dr. Richard Henry Derby, Huntington, LI. Won commissions for stained glass and murals in the new Vanderbilt home on 5th Avenue in New York City. Held one man auction at Leonard’s Gallery, Boston. Announced that he would devote himself to decoration.
1880 Designed murals and glass for United Congregational Church, Newport. Received commissions for two memorial windows at Channing Memorial Church, Newport. Began living primarily in New York from this point on, where he carried out hundreds of decorative commissions.
1881 Moved to 33 East 17th Street, New York City.
1883 In October, formed La Farge Decorative Art Company, partners split to form Decorative Stained Glass Company.
1884 First forced auction at Ortgies and Co., second one in May
1885 Forced auction at Moore’s Art Gallery, NY. Arrested for Grand Larceny on May 19th, legal action dropped on July 1. Company dissolved in October.
1886 Traveled to Japan with Henry Adams. Arrived back in New York in December.
1887 Installation of The Angel of Help, Helen Angier Ames Memorial Window, Unity Church, North Eaton, Massachusetts
1888 Began working on articles about Japanese travels for Century Magazine. Completed the mural of The Ascension in the Church of Ascension, New York City.
1889 Exhibited stained glass in London and Paris, awarded French Legion of Honor
1890 First of many exhibits held at Doll & Richards Gallery in Boston
1890-91 Traveled to San Francisco, Honolulu, Samoa, Tahiti, Fiji, Paris, and Brittany
1893 Appointed instructor in color and composition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Received commission for Athens, mural for Walker Art Building at Bowdoin College
1894 Visited Italy for the first time. Lectured on Ruskin in Buffalo.
1895 Lectured in Philadelphia and published book of same title, “Considerations on Painting”
1897 Published An Artist’s Letters from Japan
1899 Visited France with Henry Adams. Delivered commencement address at Yale University
1900 Received commission from William Collins Whitney for a pair of allegorical windows representing seasons of Spring (Philadelphia Art Museum) and Autumn (French Cultural Embassy, NY)
1901 Received honorary degree from Yale University. Awarded medal at the Pan-American Exposition, Buffalo.
1902 Received commission for four murals representing the history of law; installed in 1904 and 1905 in the Supreme Court Chambers of the Minnesota State Capitol, St. Paul, MN.
1903 Lectured on the Barbizon School at the Art Institute of Chicago. Received commission for spandrel murals representing history of law; installed in 1906 and 1907 in the Baltimore Court House
1905 Received commission for John Harvard Memorial Window, Southwark Cathedral, London.
1908 Received commission for Welcome, allegorical staircase window for the NY townhouse of Mrs. George T. Bliss (now in Metropolitan Museum of Art)
1910 Suffered nervous collapse. Died from heart failure on November 14 in Butler Hospital, Providence, RI. Buried in Greenwood Cemetery, Brooklyn.
1911 Retrospective exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Estate sale in March at American Art Galleries, NY. Royal Cortissoz’s biography on La Farge published by Houghton Mifflin.

III. Collections

Addison Gallery of American Art, MA
Albright-Knox Art Gallery, NY
Art Institute of Chicago, IL
Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Columbia University, NY
Bowdoin College Museum of Art, ME
Brooklyn Museum, NY
Butler Institute of American Art, OH
Carnegie Museum of Art, PA
Cleveland Museum of Art, OH
Colby College Museum of Art, ME
Cooper-Hewitt National Museum of Design, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
Currier Gallery of Art, NH
Detroit Institute of Arts, MI
Farnsworth Art Museum, ME
Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, CA
Harvard University Art Museum, MA
Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, NH
Hunter Museum of American Art, TN
Huntington Museum of Art, WV
Indiana University Museum of Art, IN
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, CA
Mead Art Museum, Amherst College, MA
Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY
Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, RI
Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA
National Academy Museum & School of Fine Arts, NY
National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
New Britain Museum of American Art, CT
Philadelphia Museum of Art, PA
Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C.
Princeton University Art Museum, NJ
San Diego Museum of Art, CA
Seattle Art Museum, WA
Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, D.C.
Terra Foundation for American Art, IL
Toledo Museum of Art, OH
Wellesley College Museum of Art, MA
Westmoreland Museum of American Art, PA
Whitney Museum of American Art, NY
Wichita Art Museum, KS
Worcester Art Museum, MA
Yale University Art Gallery, CT

IV. Exhibitions

1862 National Academy of Design
1890 Doll & Richards, Boston
1911 Retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
1936 Retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
1978 Watercolor Exhibition at the Peabody Museum in Salem, MA
1987 Retrospective at the National Museum of American Art

V. Memberships

American Academy of Arts and Letters
Artistic Societies of America
National Academy of Design
National Society of Mural Painters

VI. Notes

1 James Yarnall, John La Farge, Watercolors and Drawings (Yonkers: Hudson River Museum of Westchester, 1990), p. 8.
2 James Yarnall, John La Farge, Watercolors and Drawings (Yonkers: Hudson River Museum of Westchester, 1990), p.9-10.
3 Wayne Craven, American Art (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1994), p. 358.
4 James Yarnall, John La Farge, Watercolors and Drawings (Yonkers: Hudson River Museum of Westchester, 1990), p.11.
5 “Important Place of John La Farge in the Evolution of Art Ideals in this Country” New York Times, November 20, 1910.
6 Diane Johnson, American Symbolist Art: Nineteenth-Century “Poets in Paint”: Washington Allston, John La Farge, William Rimmer, George Inness, and Albert Pinkham Ryder (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002), p. 11.
7 Diane Johnson, American Symbolist Art: Nineteenth-Century “Poets in Paint”: Washington Allston, John La Farge, William Rimmer, George Inness, and Albert Pinkham Ryder (Lewiston: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002), p. 35-37.
8 James Yarnall, John La Farge, Watercolors and Drawings (Yonkers: Hudson River Museum of Westchester, 1990), p. 7.

VII. Suggested Resources

Adams, Henry. John La Farge: Essays. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987.
Cortissoz, Royal. John La Farge: A Memoir and a Study. New York: Kennedy Graphics, 1971.
Kresser, Katie. Art as History, History as Art: John La Farge and the Problem of Representation, 1835-
PhD diss., Harvard University, 2006.
Weinberg, Barbara. The Decorative Work of John La Farge. New York: Garland, 1977.
Yarnall, James. John La Farge in Paradise: The Painter and His Muse. Newport: William Vareika Fine
Arts, 1995.

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