John La Farge

John La Farge, “Swimmer”, 1866, Watercolor, 32.5 × 28.2 cm, Yale University Art Gallery

John La Farge was an American painter, muralist, writer, and stained glass designer. Among his many notable commissions, his decoration of Boston’s Trinity Church placed him among the most prominent artists of the American Arts and Crafts movement. By birth, upbringing and life-style, John LaFarge was a cosmopolite and, judged by his contemporaries, one of considerable personal magnetism.

John La Farge, the son of wealthy French emigrants, was born in New York City in 1835. After graduating from Saint Mary’s College in Maryland, he went to Europe in 1856 to study art. La Farge studied briefly in Paris under the portrait and historical genre painter Thomas Couture, later traveling to England where he discovered the work of the Pre-Raphaelite painters. In 1857, he rented a studio, which he maintained for the rest of his career, in New York’s Tenth Street studio building, where he met the building’s architect Richard Morris Hunt. This was the likely impetus for La Farge’s decision in 1859 to travel to Newport, Rhode Island, and study painting with the architect’s brother, landscape painter and portraitist William Morris Hunt.

In the period of the late 1860s, La Farge cultivated an interest in Japanese art, admiring its patterning and formality, and explored a highly personal style of still-life and open-air landscape painting. By 1875, he was working in stained glass, and a year later, he directed the decorative program for Trinity Church, Boston, designed by architect H.H. Richardson. Through his invention of opalescent glass and his imaginative designing, La Farge  contributed to a revival of the art of stained glass in America and gained an international reputation. 

La Farge experimented with the problems of shifting and deteriorating color, especially in the medium of stained glass. His work rivaled the beauty of medieval windows and added new resources by his use of opalescent glass and by his original methods of layering and welding the glass. Opalescent glass had been used for centuries in tableware; but it had never before been formed into flat sheets for use in stained-glass windows and other decorative objects.

La Farge became a leader in the mural movement, and his commissions for churches, government buildings, and opulent private homes were a welcome source of income for supplies in later years. As an easel painter, John La Farge was associated with the Society of American Artists, the organization of younger, progressive painters opposed to the National Academy of Design. La Farge, though, was also a member of the Academy; and he was extremely concerned with exhibiting his work widely, not just in New York, but across the country.

An inveterate traveler, La Farge made several trips to Europe and two highly publicized Pacific voyages with his close friend Henry Adams: one to Japan in 1886 and one to the South Sea Islands in 1890-1891. He documented his trips with extensive series of watercolors and with a succession of articles and books. His impressions of the Japanese voyage was published in 1887 under the title “An Artist’s Letters from Japan”.

In addition to his design work and writings, John La Farge was also known as a lecturer on art matters; although this great variety of activities became increasingly taxing in his final years. He continued to take on large commissions, however, even as his fragile health became critical. For the Minnesota State Capital at St. Paul, La Farge executed at age 71 four great lunettes representing the history of law. He also created a similar series based on the theme of Justice for the State Supreme Court building located at Baltimore, Maryland.  John La Farge died in 1910 at the age of 75 in Providence, Rhode Island.

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