John La Farge (1835-1910) was born into a wealthy family of French immigrants in New York City and was instructed by his father to pursue a career in law. Upon his father’s death, he moved to Rhode Island to study in the studio of William Morris Hunt (1824-1879). La Farge became interested in still life and landscape painting and had intentions of studying in Paris, but the impending Civil War halted his plans. Therefore, he remained in Rhode Island and enjoyed a prosperous lifestyle while continuing to paint. La Farge traveled to Japan in 1886 and the South Seas in 1890-91, with the famous author Henry Adams (1838-1918). Both trips influenced his subject matter greatly, and allowed him to vary his style. La Farge actively explored watercolor techniques during the whole of his career. Tragically, La Farge was committed to a mental institution in 1910 where he spent the last several months of his elderly life.
The New Britain Museum of American Art recently displayed three watercolor paintings by John La Farge in the exhibition The Great American Watercolor . These works are seldom displayed due to their fragility and sensitivity to light. It is likely that these works in particualr will not be available for the public to view for many years.
The End of Cook’s Bay takes its name from the renowned British captain James Cook who discovered the Tahitian Islands in 1769. In The End of Cook’s Bay, La Farge diligently observed the exotic tropical scene and rendered it in an array of green, blue, and turquoise. La Farge’s exceptional skill in depicting the quality of light and atmosphere of a specific time of day, elevates this painting beyond a mere travel sketch. The morning fog floats above the palm trees and the volcano, giving the painting an ethereal and dream-like quality. It is possible that La Farge’s Tahitian depictions might have Romantic connotations since he later wrote:
The name [Otaheite (Tahiti)] recalls so many associations of ideas, so much romance of reading, so much of the history of thought, that I find it difficult to disentangle the varying strands of the threads.
Autumn Scattering Leaves was a color study for a stained glass window at the house of William Collins Whitney in Old Westbury, Long Island, New York. This watercolor painting was executed to help La Farge and Whitney decide on the arrangement of the figure and also on the level of nudity that would be depicted in the window. The painting shows a woman in a robe scattering autumn leaves across a shimmering and reflective pool. The careful juxtaposition of nature and art or nature and allegory in this painting acknowledges the themes of reality and ideality that defined La Farge’s work until the end of his career.
Finally, Apple Blossoms in Small Chinese Vase is an elegant and refined still life. Comprised mostly of a blue, green, and white palette, the greatest attention to detail is in the bowl’s delicate features and engraving. The eye is quickly drawn to the unusual design of the bowl’s three legs. Enhancing the blossom’s fragile beauty is the heavy background wash which puts the brightly colored vase into focus. The elegant pink, pale blue, and white tones of the apple blossoms contrast with the bright green tones of the leaves and the darkness of the table. The unusual perspective is inspired by Japanese prints and screens.
For more information on John La Farge and one of his oil paintings, Lady of Shallot, please click here.
What do you think of LaFarge’s watercolors? Which do you prefer? What genre is he most succesful at depicting? What do you think of watercolor as a medium in its own right? Can it ever rival the tradition of oil painting? Why or why not?