American Painters – La Farge – Ryder

JOHN LA FARGE (1835-1910) stands alone in the modern art world a painter, a mural decorator, a discoverer of the adapt-ability of opaline glass, and a writer. Yet he entered his career under protest, for, as he said, “No one has struggled more against his destiny than I; nor did I for many years acquiesce in being a painter, though I learned the methods and studied the problems of my art. I had hoped to find some other mode of life, some other way of satisfying the desire for a contemplation of truth, unbiased, free, and detached.”

La Farge was a dreamer and a student, and these opposite qualities gave him the double power of one “who not only sees the world as a pageant of coloured light, but has found means to express his visions.” One characteristic of his art was the pose or gesture of his figures. Although he had made a special study of anatomy, he never allowed his scientific knowledge to interfere with the significance of the emotion he wished to express. This thought is admirably brought out in “Adoration” (Fig. 44), Institute of Arts and Sciences, Brooklyn. The pose of the figure to the minutest details is suggestive of the most exalted worship of a Higher Being. The elongated body is in perfect harmony with the uplift of the soul, as expressed in the shining face. Our eyes follow easily and naturally the long folds of the white robe from the extended foot to the raised hands the hands alone express adoration and the lifted head. The stained glass window from this painting is in the Church of the Paulist Fathers, Columbus Avenue and Fifty-ninth Street, New York City.

It has been my good fortune while gathering personal incidents about Mr. La Farge and his “Adoration” to find that Mrs. J. Hunger-ford Milbank, founder of the International Order of Military Women (to develop mental and physical poise the fundamentals toward world peace), New York City, when a girl posed to the artist for his “Adoration” and “St. John,” in the Cathedral. One day, in a reminiscent mood, Mrs. Milbank said, “Mentally I see again the studio in Tenth Street, and the thin, rather bent genius, which was John La Farge. La Farge liked to take down my hair and arrange it himself. He made a delightful play of it, first carefully re-moving my sailor hat, then drawing out the pins one by one, and watching the light in each part of the sunny mass as it fell over my shoulders. How well I remember sitting upon a low stool while he bent above me, his thin face seeming to fill out and grow radiant with the joy of the task. As my sittings were not paid affairs, the conversation often took a friendly turn. I tried to justify my neglect of my art (he had chided her with fatherly se-verity for not pursuing it), saying that I was growing within to greater things by my studies in Greek philosophy.” Much discussion followed. Then Mrs. Milbank again gave a word picture, as she said, “Like a beacon light which has not dimmed through the years is the incident of his quietly leaving his easel and, palette on thumb, coming to stand beside me. For a moment he rested his hand upon my head, looking down into my face, and there was silence – then came his strongly prophetic words: ‘Yours is more than art. You shall make good citizens.’ ” What a tribute to the reclaiming power of women a power that begins at the cradle but never ends.

In an interview some years ago Mr. La Farge gave “The Wolf Charmer” (Fig. 45), City Art Museum, St. Louis, as his representative picture. He said : “The picture I have chosen for you interests me, perhaps, as much from associations of travel and reading as for special artistic success I made it to be one of a series of some hundred subjects more or less fantastic and imaginary. This one, of course, was based on the superstition, a European belief, which I came across in Brittany, where I spent some time in my early youth.” Mr. La Farge never carried out his plan of making these books for young people.

The were-wolf, supposed to be a man, was . usually like a wolf, but sometimes like a white dog or black goat, and again it was an invisible being roaming about devouring infants. The term bug-wolf instead of bug-bear is used in France, and scarcely a century ago even the men with bagpipes and hurdy-gurdies were thought to be conjurers. La Farge takes Goethe’s “Gipsy Song” to explain his Wolf-Charmer. He says : “The gipsy has killed, you’ know, the black cat of the village witch, and outside in the night, with the call of the owl, he is attacked by wolves. But he knows them; they are the women of the village and he calls them and insults them by name ‘Kate,’ ‘Anna’ and ‘Bec.’ The poem and its meaning of the tamer of the real wolf and the man-wolf gave me my subject.”

Looking at the picture, we see that down through the forest defile glides the wolf-charmer. He gnaws at his bag-pipe, sending out weird, persuasive calls, until the real wolves steal out and follow him. His bent body and bowed head, his cautious step and gripping hands are in perfect harmony with his evil-looking companions. The strange note of sympathy in the wild music and the charmer’s wolf-like face have subdued the ravenous beasts until unafraid they swing along the narrow defile as docile as dogs following their master.

As a church mural painter John La Farge was an epoch maker in American art. None knew better than he the religious value of colour. His glorious altarpiece in the Church of the Ascension, New York City, is a harmony of colour that plays upon our heart strings like strains from the immortal Bach on the great organ. And in the decoration of public buildings his keen insight and sympathetic understanding led him beyond the appearance of things to the underlying essentials. We feel the bigness of his visions even in the minutest details, for he never sacrificed art principles to gain an appearance. Composition, drawing, handling and even colour were his means to an end and that end was to understand the spiritual significance of life.

The opalescent tone of the painting of “The Halt of the Wise Men” (Fig. 46), Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has the same jewel-like quality of La Farge’s stained glass windows. Prismatic colours were to him the strings from which he drew the most exquisite harmony. He interpreted nature through his colour sense, and whether he wrote with pen or with brush the same vision of delicate shimmering colour rises before us. Look at the blending tints hovering over the level plain beyond the Wise Men and their attendants and note the subdued glory gathered into the equipment of the little company in the foreground. Now listen to his colour scheme in his “Letters from Japan”: “Our rooms open on the water that same blue water spangled with sunshine and fading into sky . . . The still heat of the sun burned across our way, spotted by the flight of many yellow butterflies. . . . The heated hills on each side wore a thin interlacing of violet in the green of their pines . . . A vivid green against the background of violet mountains . . . except where the sun struck in the emerald hollow above the fall. . . . A rosy bloom, pink as the clouds themselves, filled the entire air . . . the spray, the waves, the boat, the bodies of the men glistening and suffused with pink.”

John La Farge is rightly called the Nestor of our painters. His chief characteristic was “to do” modified by “to know.” He had a “nervous activity, unappeased by any effort, unsatisfied by any experience, and seeking and seeking again.” His insatiable desire to know led to his marvellous discoveries in stained glass he was the inventor of modern stained glass windows and, by a process entirely original, he made that material as subservient to his needs as were the pigments on his palette.

It is not surprising that the opalescent quality of his glass is reminiscent of Japan; of its marvellous works of art and most of all of its colour harmony in nature. We feel this to be specially true when Mr. La Farge wrote, as he so often did, of drifting out into the hazy moonlight into a far off ocean with no shore nor sky; and when he said, “We were the centre of a globe of pearl ; no edges nor outlines of anything visible, except a faint circular light above from which the pearly colour flowed tremulously, and a few wrinkles of silver and dark below.” The trembling, iridescent tones hovering over that fairy land took possession of the artist’s soul and, later, when conquering the material means of operation, a glorious colour harmony was working itself out in the laboratory of his brain.

Our first impression on seeing a collection of Albert P. Ryder’s (1847) pictures is that an exquisite colour scheme has been carried to the nth power of perfection. It seems as though all nature had been put under bond to contribute to her wealth. The very smallness of the pictures enhances their gem-like qualities. That tiny canvas picturing a woman in red walking down an avenue of yellow autumn-coloured trees is a veritable carbuncle set in Etruscan gold. Each dainty creation is a revelation in the jewel-like quality of pigments and of the artist’s deep sense of the value of colour in interpreting his theme. It is impossible to give an adequate idea of the beauty of Mr. Ryder’s pictures in a black and white reproduction, for so much of their real significance lies in the harmony of the colour tone; yet the underlying thought is still there, even in a half-tone. No one can mistake the meaning of “The Waste of Water Is Their Field” (rig. 47), Institute of Arts and Sciences, Brooklyn. That vigorous scene tells the life-story of those toilers of the sea in a simple straightforward manner. To those men the scudding clouds and rolling waters present as many moods to be reckoned with as the changing temper of a mob swayed by the impulse of the moment. Strong and alert, they humour and coax the elements, but never lose control in holding in leash the power that might bring destruction.

Then turn to the quiet, restful scene “In the Stable” (Fig. 48), where the colourful shadows are “like a vibrant music string.” Poetic? Yes, with much of emotional imaginings, yet it stirs old memories of feeding time, of the favourite white horse so gentle and trustworthy, of the biddy that came with her chicks to the feast. Just such scenes shape themselves in the blazing logs at the rest time of the tired business man scenes from the dim and shadowy past when life was all in the future. Mr. Ryder touches nature so tenderly and reverently that the rough places smooth out and life ceases to be all grind.