In 1911, a year after John La Farge’s death, the eminent art critic Royal Cortissoz eulogized his late friend as “our sole ‘Old Master,’our sole type of the kind of genius that went out with the Italian Renaissance” (John La Farge: A Memoir and a Study [Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1911], p. 261). The description was apt. La Farge was a pioneer in the arts of watercolor, mural painting, interior design, and stained glass in the United States, all of which had previously been considered secondary, “decorative” arts—lesser relations of sculpture and painting, the “true” media of fine art. La Farge was also was among the very first Western artists to respond to and assimilate the formal properties of Japanese prints into his work. With his innovations, La Farge rejected the distinctions between fine and decorative art, and thus played a determining role in inaugurating the extraordinarily vibrant period of artistic activity in America now known as the American Renaissance.
John La Farge was born in New York City into a wealthy, cultured, devoutly Catholic, French family. His parents had a keen appreciation of La Farge’s precocious intellectual and artistic abilities and devoted a portion of their ample means to cultivate them. While French was the primary language in the household, by the time he was a teenager La Farge was also fluent in English and German. He spent hours at home honing his intellect in the extensive family library. La Farge’s education in art began when, at the age of six, he was instructed in drawing by maternal grandfather, a miniature painter. At fourteen, while attending Columbia Grammar School, La Farge took lessons from an English watercolorist. In 1850, he enrolled in Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland, the alma mater of New York Archbishop, John Hughes. He spent a year at St. John’s College (now Fordham University), then a small French Jesuit school in the Bronx, and then returned to graduate from Mount St. Mary’s in 1855. Back in New York, La Farge prepared for a career in law while also studying painting with the French landscapist Régis-François Gignoux, who had also taught George Inness.
In 1856, La Farge, travelling with two of his brothers, embarked on what was planned as an extended European tour, the reasonable capstone to his years of education, and an opportunity, besides, to make the acquaintance of his large French family. He traveled widely, sketching wherever he went. In Paris, he was introduced to the elite Parisian artistic and literary circle around his mother’s cousin, the theater critic, Paul Bins, Comte de Saint-Victor (known as Paul Saint-Victor). La Farge studied briefly with eminent academician, Thomas Couture, and then followed Couture’s advice to learn by copying in the Louvre Museum. La Farge’s European tour was curtailed by news of his father’s declining health. Making his way home through England, he was able to stop in Manchester, to visit the spectacular 1857 show, “The Art Treasures of Great Britain.” Encyclopedic in scope, the exhibition included important contributions from the English Pre-Raphaelite painters as well as outstanding examples of contemporary decorative art. La Farge’s experience in this first European trip redirected the trajectory of his life. He returned to New York and may have briefly practiced law. In 1858, La Farge’s father died. Fortified with a substantial inheritance, La Farge turned his back on the legal profession, and determined to become an artist.
In New York, La Farge shared common interests with Richard Morris Hunt, the first American to have studied architecture at the École des Beaux Arts in Paris. Hunt recognized La Farge’s talent and directed him to his artist brother, William Morris Hunt, who was living in Newport, Rhode Island. William Morris Hunt had studied from 1846 to 1852 with Thomas Couture in Paris, before shifting his allegiance to Jean-François Millet, famed for his paintings of French peasants and a founder of the Barbizon School with its ethos of plein-air painting. When William Morris returned to America he became an influential teacher and conduit of this “modern,” that is to say, non-academic, mode of French painting. La Farge left for Newport, to study with Hunt. Under Hunt’s tutelage, he rapidly developed his own style. Fascinated by Japanese art, which he had likely seen in Europe, he became an enthusiastic collector of Japanese prints. Through a fellow Hunt student, Thomas Sargent Perry (who later married Lilla Cabot), La Farge met and courted Margaret Mason Perry, Thomas’s older sister. The Perrys were grandchildren of Commodore Matthew Perry, who had opened up trade between Japan and the United States in 1853. With his marriage to Margaret Perry in 1869, La Farge gained access to the Perry family collection of Japanese art and artifacts. That exposure is reflected in La Farge’s incorporation of various formal characteristics of Japanese prints into his art, including asymmetrical compositions and the use of broad, flattened planes of color, devices he employed well in advance of most avant-garde European artists.
From the early 1860s to the mid-1870s, John La Farge was principally an easel painter. His finest works from this period are undoubtedly his extraordinarily tender and sensuous still lifes, for which he is recognized as one of the genre’s greatest masters. He also painted, in a Barbizon-derived, tonal style, some of the most memorable landscapes in American art, including his masterworks of Paradise Valley, Rhode Island. By the end of the 1870s, however, La Farge largely abandoned easel painting for a series of ambitious decorative projects. It was through these projects that La Farge exerted his greatest influence on American art, and most particularly through his work in the design and fabrication of stained glass. La Farge was deeply affected by the Centennial Exposition in 1876 in Philadelphia, where he saw new innovations in the decorative arts. His career in decorative arts began in earnest with his work on the interior of Trinity Church in Boston, designed by the Beaux-Arts trained architect Henry Hobson Richardson and constructed in 1876–77. For this monumental project, La Farge produced a highly complex amalgam of Western styles, from antiquity through early Christian art, Byzantine art, medieval art, and the Renaissance, merging these with an aesthetic derived from his knowledge of Japanese art. He worked in a variety of media, including mural painting, sculpture, and, most famously, stained glass. La Farge’s work on Trinity Church was a smashing success, and thereafter he dedicated himself to a wide variety of decorative art projects.
Although La Farge had worked in watercolor since the beginning of his career, the medium took on new significance and new possibilities in the late 1870s. While his decorative work was aesthetically successful, it proved a financial disaster. La Farge, a master artist, was a poor businessman, most notably in his failure to accurately factor in time and expenses into the final charge for his work. Financially stressed, La Farge discovered that there was a ready market for small watercolor still lifes. These could be readily created and just as readily sold for immediate cash. Beginning around 1878, he directed his easel-painting energies to the painting of watercolors. Fortuitously, watercolor also proved the ideal medium to experiment with designs and motifs for stained glass, evoking on paper the luminous quality La Farge sought in his more elaborate glass designs. La Farge conceived of watercolor and stained glass as interrelated pursuits, twin means aimed at the same purpose—to render light in transparent colors.