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December 03, 2002

1000 Words -- John La Farge

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Friedrich --

Many thanks for the informative (and beautifully laid-out) excursions into art history.

Like you, I've come to understand what a straitjacket the usual academic art-history view of art is -- the one that teaches us that it all leads to the Impressionists, the Cubists, through Abstract Expressionism and to the postmodernism of the present day. It's certainly one take on the history of art, and it can be a helpful one. As the only view of art history, though, it can be maddeningly confining.

John La Farge, for instance. How bizarre that many art fans don't know who John La Farge was. You've told me that you don't; the Wife tells me she doesn't. Yet he was one of the stars of one of the biggest, brawniest eras in all of American art. (The images in this posting are mostly pop-ups, so be sure to click on them.)

Self-portrait; Studio nude

The era was the one generally known as the American Renaissance -- the period from the Civil War to the First World War. Robber baron money; the Newport mansions of Richard Morris Hunt; the churches and houses of Stanford White; the sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens; the time when American artists first learned about Impressionism and Japanese art. It was during these years that America first got interested in its own history, and its artists and architects deliberately set out to create an American public art -- many of our triumphal arches, war memorials, and public sculptures were created during this period. The Beaux-Arts buildings -- the city halls, mansions and courthouses -- that still make so many city neighborhoods so city-like were built during this period.

It's one of the most dynamic, exciting, and productive eras in the history of American art, yet one that many arts fans don't know much about. Why? I suspect it's because we've learned to see this work as pompous, sentimental, and imperialistic. (And who taught us to see it that way? Conventional academic art history.) Yet much of the work is still treasured; imagine our cities without these buildings, monuments, churches, and sculptures. It's fascinating to learn that architects and artists -- muralists, painters, mosaicists, sculptors -- collaborated frequently during this era, often on huge projects, and did so in a spirit of enthusiasm and cooperation. I can't, in fact, think of another era when America's art and architecture worlds were so healthy.

John La Farge (1835-1910) was one of the era's giants. Of French descent, he grew up in New York City, studied in Paris, trained in the law, then decided to become an artist; he married, moved to Newport, and had nine kids. During his career, he worked on many scales, and in a wide range of media. Many of his buddies were the era's other greats: he collaborated with Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White, traveled to Japan with Henry Adams, visited Tahiti, was buddies with Henry and William James, and was known as a terrific writer himself. He was an innovative watercolorist, he made frescoes, and he illustrated books and magazines.

Stained glass: "Peonies" and "The Fruits of Commerce"

So far as he's known today, it's largely for the work he did in stained glass -- La Farge and Louis Comfort Tiffany were the guys who revived the art of stained glass. La Farge worked in the medium from the 1870s on, and executed hundreds of commissions, many of which survive. Like Tiffany, he was an innovator. When the two of them turned to stained glass, the only glass available to work with was flat and regular -- colorful but blah. La Farge and Tiffany (friendly, until they spatted over who deserved credit for some of these innovations) wanted richer colors and textures. They layered glass of different colors, and developed opalescent, textured and "jeweled" glass; they introduced variety into the leading between the pieces of glass. (Towards the end of his life, La Farge developed mental problems that may have been caused by his years of work with lead.)

A confident, brilliantly talented, and influential dynamo, in other words, yet largely forgotten these days. How to explain this? My hunch is that it's because it's almost impossible to think of his work as a tributary leading to modernism. It doesn't have a place in the story. Tiffany (like Frank Lloyd Wright, come to think of it) may not have been a modernist exactly, but his work flows more easily into the conventional art-history story; he can be seen and enjoyed as a proto-modernist.

La Farge can't. When I look at La Farge's work, I don't see proto-modernism. I see instead the full flowering of the American Renaissance. One of the reasons people soaked in the everything-leads-to-modernism school look skeptically at the work of this period is that the American Renaissance artists and architects had a completely different set of values than ours. It was an era that valued allegory, sentiment, idealism, and Italian Renaissance and classical-antiquity models -- all of which we have since been schooled to find corny. They made art that's harmonious, proud, classical, patriotic, and the kind of beauty they achieved is quite different than the more jarring kinds we tend to prefer today. (Another, rather insulting, term for this art is The Genteel Tradition.)

Even I, a fan, find some of La Farge's work hard to feel terribly enthusiastic about. He did a lot of Lady-of-Shallot-style allegorical paintings that are almost pre-Raphaelite, and are done in a pinky-purply iridescence; it's hard for me not to find these paintings a little icky, no matter how aware I am that this was the kind of thing that the era considered poetic.

Flowers by La Farge

I find it easier to respond happily to his watercolors, his paintings of flowers, and his stained glass. Looking at this work, I'm often knocked out; the beauty of some of it can make me dizzy. It's a genteel beauty, sure -- but why not? I love the way the way the solid Beaux-Arts technique opens to craft traditions, impressionism, and Japanese design without ever losing its own hold; I find some of the watercolors of flowers as beautiful as Nolde's.

It occurs to me that one of the consequences of the conventional view of art history is to leave us feeling ashamed of responding to certain kinds of beauty. (Venturing this thought and calling attention to the beauty of La Farge's work is really the point of this posting.) La Farge's work, and the beauty of it, is complete unto itself, and also completely of its era. People with modernist/postmodernist backgrounds may find that they have to make a leap to enjoy it. There's much there to be enjoyed.

Why is the work of this era so overlooked? My guess is that it's because it's the exact era that modernism turned against; its values are the exact ones that modernists saw themselves as rejecting. Perhaps the fact that it was the art of Robber Baron America also makes some people want to shun it. Yet fine art has always been a matter for the moneyed -- Picasso wasn't painting in order to benefit the poor, and Frank Gehry's customers haven't exactly been short of cash.

Post-modernism, we're often told, represents the end of modernism, the breaking-up of its one-narrow-view of art. Yet I find postmodernism as self-conscious and theoretical as modernism -- there's still an academic establishment (with an agenda) out there giving and witholding stamps of approval. Thank heavens that it's perfectly possible to be familiar with these schools and approaches, and yet also be able to leave self-consciousness behind -- and to do so at will. It's possible to make your own ventures into history, art, beauty and pleasure, and find some real catches. All it takes is time, confidence, and an openness to responding to work in ways Teacher might not approve of.

La Farge has been one of these catches for me. How do you react to his work? And what catches have you made recently?

If you want to look at more of La Farge's work, let me suggest these beyond-fabulous resources:

  • The indispensable Art Renewal Center features 30 of La Farge's pieces, here.
  • CGFA, whose scans simply can't be beat, has some beauties here.
  • Julie Sloan, a glass restorer in North Adams, Mass., who has worked on some of La Farge's stained-glass windows, has written a fascinating essay about La Farge and Tiffany that can be read here.



posted by Michael at December 3, 2002


My big discovery has been Thomas Moran. I visited a webpage on his work on the National Gallery of Art website and got a much broader view of his art than before. I didn't realize that he did landscapes on Long Island or views of New York City--and that he manages to treat them in the same "heroic" manner as his Western landscapes. I came away from the website thinking that his painting style (largely self-taught, with a great deal of careful observation of Turner, his idol) was actually more responsible for the impressiveness of his productions than the inherent grandeur of his subjects--a point which is completely ignored in conventional art histories (along with Moran himself, come to think of it.) When he died--in the 1920s(!)--his obituaries called him the greatest American painter. This may not have been as hyperbolic as it seems.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 3, 2002 5:45 PM

Wow, I had no idea Moran had done that kind of painting. I'd love to know more. Why not put up one of your illustrated postings and tell us about him?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 3, 2002 6:26 PM

Thank you for introducing us to La Farge. Wonderful work. I agree with you about the whole art historical perspective. I am just as guilty as the next art historian of teaching the straight line from Impressionist to Cubist to Abstract Expressionism, but it's what we were taught. However, I don't think this is a bad thing. Like any view of history, one has to take a certain perspective which inevitably leaves out certain events and ideas. One could teach a whole Art History 101 course using only academic painters and realists, never touching on the "modern" works at all. But then, your students would be art-illiterates. The question arises of how to present a whole-art perspective of the history of art? You have one semester, and you have to pick and choose. What do you leave out in favor of La Farge?
My answer: take a seminar course in American Art of the 19th century. Ok, so you non-art historians out there may not have the time or the inclination, but what else is there? I had some wonderful courses in college, though none were on American Art (more's the pity).

Posted by: Alexandra on December 3, 2002 7:52 PM

Alexandra's got a very good point -- the version of art history that's generally taught is a very tidy (and apparently sell-able) package. It's finite and comprehensible -- and thus attractive in many ways.

Hmmm, if I were dictator, how would I solve this problem? Hmmm... Maybe a mandatory second semester. With some weeks spent doing horizontal slices through art, the way Friedrich has been suggesting and demonstrating: here's a sample of what was being done all around the world in the year 900; in the year 1350; etc. And some weeks spent centered on one artist or motif or art work, and branching off from that. Here's an African tribal mask, one week; here's John La Farge the next; here's a Moghul book illustration the week after ...

Of course that all depends on me being made dictator...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 3, 2002 11:16 PM

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