John La Farge took his first art class at the age of five. Following his graduation from university, he began an apprenticeship at a law firm in New York City. During that time he continued with his art studies. In 1856, his father, a successful lawyer, sent him on a trip to visit relatives in France. In Paris he worked in Thomas Couture’s studio, suggested he copy drawings by the Old Masters during museum visits. La Farge returned to New York in 1857 when he found out that his father’s health was rapidly deteriorating. On his way back he stopped in Manchester, England to see an exhibition that included modern art, works by the old masters, and paintings by the British Pre-Raphaelites.
When La Farge’s father passed away in 1858, he inherited a large amount of money and was suddenly free from the pressure to pursue a career in law. He decided to completely devote himself to his art. On the architect Richard Morris Hunt’s advice, La Farge looked for a studio in Newport, Rhode Island to start his artistic career. In 1859 he began a self-guided study schedule concentrating on still life and landscape paintings, with a special focus on the effects of light.
Towards the end of the 1870s he received decorative commissions by notable architects, including Henry Hobson Richardson the architect of the Trinity Church in Boston. La Farge’s murals at the Trinity Church in particualr won him national attention. La Farge also started experimenting with iridescent glass to produce unconventional stained glass windows. As a result, he became the most sought after decorator in New York. Due to his success, he was able to open a studio that employed over forty workers at its peak. Unfortunately, due to La Farge’s insufficient business expertise and lavishness, he soon stumbled toward bankruptcy.
In Lady of Shallot, La Farge took inspiration from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem of the same name. The poem discusses the unreciprocated love the Lady of Shallot felt towards Sir Lancelot, who was in love with Guenevere, the wife of King Arthur. When the Lady of Shallot realized how futile her situation was, she went insane and decided to place herself on a barge to. This painting shows the boat floating down the river towards Camelot, where Lancelot witnesses her dying of his unrequited love for her. Not only did the subject of the dying Lady of Shallot drifting on a barge inspire La Farge but also artists like John Atkinson Grimshaw, William A. Breakspeare and Edward Robert Hughes. This theme was of particular interest to artists due to the sensuality indicated by the Lady’s dead reclining body and the wicked appeal of the fusion of beauty and death as well as spirituality and sensuality. The following excerpt from Tennyson’s poem describes the Lady of Shallot after her demise, which La Farge illustrates in his painting:
And at the closing of the day
She loosed the chain, and down she lay;
The broad stream bore her far away.
. . .
A gleaming shape she floated by,
Dead-pale between the houses high,
Silent into Camelot.
At the time, the Lady of Shallot was the most recognized character of Tennyson’s work.
Nelson’s Pond is an actual place that La Farge used as the backdrop for the painting. The pond is only about three miles from Paradise, a farm the La Farge’s used to frequent on the Atlantic coast. The powerful gleam of the sunset refers to the “closing of the day” in the poem and throws a sinister shadow over the scene. At the same time it also symbolizes the receding life of the Lady of Shallot.
The sorrowful figure of the Lady of Shallot is situated in the foreground of the painting with her body reposing in the wooden vessel. She clutches a long white dress, which she seems to have pulled up towards her chin. It appears that her lips are moving in a half-mad song, an indication of her impending fate.
The Lady of Shallot’s facial features have been identified as those of La Farge’s wife Margaret. This echoes the practice of the British Pre-Raphaelites who painted their partners in bathtubs posing as if they were from an English literary work of the time. The difference between the use of the contemporary English painting technique to render the female form and the use of the French Barbizon style to create the dark landscape is quite striking. The Lady of Shallot appears to be a glowing, ethereal presnece in a murky and mysterious landscape. The latter school, with its brooding mood and dusky palette, also greatly influenced La Farge’s work at the beginning of the 1860s.
Many painters, especially the Pre-Raphaelites Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Maw Egley, and William Holman Hunt used Tennyson’s poems as inspiration for their artworks. Even though the influence of the Pre-Raphaelites as well as the Barbizon school is evident in the Lady of Shallot, La Farge was a unique artist who was able to combine their styles to create his own.