American Painting – John La Farge

JOHN LA FARGE was born in New York in 1835, and grew up under conditions very favourable to the acquisition of superior knowledge and taste. For bis father’s house in Washington Square, well stocked with books and pictures and prints, was a rendezvous of cultivated people, many of them belonging to families who had escaped the revolutions in France and San Domingo. Thus his classical studies at school, which were of the old-fashioned, extensive, and thoughtful kind, were supplemented by the literary, artistic, and critical atmosphere of the home life.

In 1856 he visited Paris, residing with his cousin, Paul dé St. Victor, a writer and critic, in whose house he came into direct touch with the best thought of Paris of that day. During his ” wander-year ” in Europe he visited Munich, Dresden, and London, but returned home at length with the conviction that the most important developments of the day were represented by the Barbizon artists, Rousseau, Corot, and Millet, and by Delacroix. He now entered a lawyer’s office in New York, for, as he says, ” 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 undetached.”

To my mind there is something very interesting in this slow, gradual growth of La Farge toward the vocation in which he has since become so distinguished, that he may be reckoned the most profoundly learned artist that America has yet produced. His love of art antedated his professional practice of it; he pursued it, first of all, as a branch of the wider culture in which he was training him-self ; and, at an age when most students are trying to adapt some little particular phase of art to their own purpose, he was seeking to discover its relation to the large field of human thought and life. In his case, for a time, the particular and the personal aspect of art was lost sight of in the universal aspect.

What I have in mind is the difference between thinking and working outward from a centre, and thinking and working inward toward the centre from the horizon of a large circumference. For example, the average student starts with learning to draw and paint the human figure. This is his tiny centre, and from it he begins to broaden out. a little, arranging his figures into compositions, and by degrees, perhaps, making them the source of some kind of expressional appeal. But as a general rule, the start made in this way does not lead very far ; the circle around the centre is circumscribed; the picture has little capacity to stir the emotions or the imagination, and shows a tendency to be mostly a manipulation, more or less dexterous, of the thing it started with—the drawing and painting of the human figure. On the other hand, suppose a man whose mind has been habitually directed toward the larger aspects of human life and its relations to its seen and unseen environment, who has learned to regard the scheme of men and things as parts of a vastness of design, the limits of which melt into infinity of time and space. He analyses the relations of these parts to one another and to the whole Universe, discovers principles of agreement and antagonism, and works, not by rule of thumb or at the uncertain beck of temperament, but along the lines of a plan that, for him at least, affords the basis of a sound hypothesis for motive and method. When a man, possessed of this habit of seeing things in relation to the Universal, draws inward to the particular that lies under his hand to be done, he brings to the doing of it qualities of mind and principles of practice that make the particular no longer a little centre from which to spread out tentatively, but the white-hot core into which are fused the forces that he has gathered from outside.

It has been so with La Farge. Just as art is to him only one of the phases of material and spiritual being, so an individual work of art, while suggesting to him that it is all sufficient in itself, a complete harmonious unity, will yet be the greater in its power to move and hold the imagination if it suggests also that it is but a fragment of a universal harmony and unity. He conceives of a ” Universal Geometry,” with which man’s separate, fragmentary ” plans ” of arranged beauty—his works of art—can be and should be coordinated. Space will not allow me to pursue this idea, except to suggest an analogy to it in the laying out of Central Park, New York, by the late Mr. Frederick Law Olmsted. As you traverse it you are confronted with a great number of separate vistas; they appear one after the other, very different in character, yet each seems complete in itself. A fuller knowledge reveals that each is harmoniously related to the others, and that all are correlated to what, for the purpose of illustration, straining the words, we may call the ” Universal Geometry ” of the whole plan. And although this ultimate harmonising of all the different ingredients can nowhere or at any one time be seen with the eye, yet, when it has been once realised, it persuades the imagination to find a greater beauty than before in each part.

When La Farge at length determined to follow the practice of art as a profession, he studied for a time under Hunt, at Newport, which place, since 1860, along with New York, has been identified with his work. The latter, apart from decoration, which will stand as the most striking manifestation of his genius, has consisted of oil paintings of landscape and flowers, of drawings for illustration, and of water-colours of scenes in Samoa and Japan. The last named are studies of the luxuriant colouring of vegetation, sky, water, and rock, rapidly brushed in under the spontaneous enthusiasm of the moment, and,’ to some extent, as notes or records of colour, to be elaborated later in some window or wall painting. His drawings, some of which were made to illustrate poems by Tennyson or Browning, are of unusual interest, powerful and subtle in characterisation, and beautiful also as a decoration of the page.

It is as a colourist that he has gained distinction and influenced others. Not that a man can learn to be a colourist; but the natural gift for it has to be cultivated, and in discovering new secrets for himself he has been a guide to others. During his early travel abroad he was naturally drawn toward the work of the old Venetian colourists ; but, being an original genius, he could look outside of tradition, and was greatly interested in the colour experiments of Holman Hunt and John Everett Millais, two members of the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, and of Ford Madox Brown.

It was one of the tenets of these young painters to represent everything exactly as they saw it, and accordingly to give each object its ” local ” colour. Other painters of the day imitated the prevailing tone of old pictures, that was partly the result of original use of glazes, partly of. the fading out of colour, of the accumulation of dirt, and of successive varnishings. These men, however, put their bright colours in a vivid and harsh juxtaposition that, while it might be true to the local tints of nature, was artistically false. Could the natural and artistic truths be reconciled? If so, then the limited range of colours used in the convention of Venetian painting could be enlarged, reinforced, and intensified by the brilliance of nature’s colouring.

Briefly, La Farge solved the problem. By degrees he discovered what we shall have occasion to refer to later, that the imitating of the local colours is only a part of truth to nature. To confine one’s self to this is like taking fish out of the water in which they belong. The local colours must be represented in their own medium of lighted atmosphere, which surrounds all things and draws them together into a natural appearance of tone. Light, in a word, became the study of La Farge; light in its operation upon local colour; in the infinite diversity of its way of striking objects, directly or by reflection or refraction; and the diminution of light on objects, as things recede from the eye, owing to the layers of intervening atmosphere. He noted also that under the influence of light, a local colour is made more or less brilliant by the juxtaposition of other local colours, which in turn are similarly affected. This briefly summarises the principles gradually reached by La Farge, as the result partly of his own observations and partly of the research of scientists. Working thus independently, he anticipated, as we shall see later, the French artist, Manet, and the Impressionists, in applying their principles to painting.

He began by working on subjects of still-life and flowers, turning later to landscape. Of the last he painted but a few examples, yet they are very remarkable. Like the Barbizon men, he depicted only a fragment of nature, comprehending it with intimacy of feeling, while, like a Pre-Raphaelite, he attempted an actual portrayal of the local colours of the scene; but he went further than either, in what he himself has called ” the rendering of the gradations of light and air through which we see form “; and a step even beyond this, in that he was not satisfied with a generalised appearance of light, but sought to represent it under special aspects of time and season. Thus he not only had assimilated the foremost movements of that time, but also anticipated the later studies of Manet and Monet. The explanation of this fact, I believe, is that the advance made by Manet and Monet was based on scientific principles, upon the application to painting of that exact scrutiny of phenomena which was the predominate feature of thought in other phases of life, and that La Farge is himself a scientist as well as an artist. He has given an incidental corroboration of this in the following words : ” There is in each competent artist a sort of unconscious automatic mathematician, who, like the harmonist in music, the colourist in painting, resolves in his way the problem of sight and sound which the scientist puts into an equation.”

A nature so compounded of the scientific and the artistic presents the kind of soil in which symbolism flourishes. In La Farge’s case it produced some remarkable drawings, such as The Wolf Charmer, and attracted him toward the painting of religious subjects. But this phase of his work we will consider later in connection with mural painting. For the present let us notice how this combination of the scientific and artistic has served him in another branch of decoration, that of coloured windows.

It was a happy coincidence that to an artist, thus occupied with the problems of light, should have come an opportunity of working in the most translucent of all mediums—glass. It resulted in the practical invention of a new kind of material, and the production in the window of a richness and subtlety of colours impossible in the older form of glass.

To put it as briefly as possible : the makers of so-called ” stained glass ” windows had used what is called in the trade ” pot-metal,” that is to say, glass which is coloured in the mass, while it is molten in the crucible or pot. Such glass, which was imported from England, was necessarily limited in its range of colour, and there was also a limit to the amount of richness and subtlety that could be obtained by what is technically known as ” plating,” that is, placing one tone or tint of glass behind another. Accordingly, the English window-makers, even such as Burne-Jones, relied chiefly upon the patterns of the forms, the drawing of the designs. But this would not satisfy La Farge, who saw his design from its inception, not in outline, but in full-fleshed form of colour.

He happened to be sick in bed, and, observing some toilet articles made of what is called ” opal glass ” in imitation of china, noticed that in the imperfect specimens the material, like an opal, exhibited, as well as the local colour, its complementary one.* He noticed also that when the opal glass was placed alongside a piece of pot-metal the opalescent quality brought out a certain harmony. He felt he had discovered a means of in-creasing subtlety of colour effects, and of extra richness, too, for it is a known fact that the brilliancy of a colour is intensified by the juxtaposition of its complementary. Moreover, his mind, travel-ling quickly on, foresaw other possibilities in the use of this material, owing to the variety of modulations of thickness, surface, and colour to which it can be treated in the making.

He began to experiment with pieces cut from objects made in opal glass, and then found a glass-maker who was willing to make him sheets of the material. He used it at first in conjunction with pot-metal, and gradually elaborated his methods, until, in the Battle Window in Memorial Hall, Harvard University, he combined a variety of effects. ” In this window,” he says, ” I used almost every variety of glass that would serve, and even precious stones, such as amethysts and the like. And I began to represent effects of light and modulation of shadow by using streaked glass, glass of several colours blended, and glass wrinkled into forms, as well as glass cut into shapes, or blown into forms; even glass into which other glass had been deposited in patterns. I also painted the glass very much and carefully in certain places; so that in a rough way this window is an epitome of all the varieties of glass that I have seen used be-fore or since.”

This quotation gives some idea of the variations possible in the actual making of the material; and since the date of the Battle Window (1870) they have been multiplied. What is now called ” American glass ” is capable of unlimited effects ; and in the hands of a master-colourist, like La Farge, it is an instrument which produces the richest harmonies and extraordinarily subtle orchestration. So far, no other artist has approached him in the variety and originality of his use of the material. It was the child of this artist-scientist’s genius, and has yielded to him its choicest service.

The reader will remember that it was in the early ‘fifties that Hunt, Inness, and La Farge sought their first impressions in France, and that, since that date, the movement of students had been to Düsseldorf and Munich. Indeed, it was not until the close of the third quarter of the century that Paris became the regular goal of American students.