John La Farge – An Appreciation

The charm and the personal authority of John La Farge were such that no acquaintance of his may hope impartially to weigh his long and multiform achievement. He restored to dignity among us the art of mural decoration; he invented a new and beautiful technic for stained glass; but in our moment of loss these deeds seem someway less than the man himself. Hundreds of cultured Americans who knew his work but vaguely valued his eloquence and bowed to his taste. As an arbiter, only Charles Eliot Norton rivalled him, and Mr. La Farge had the advantage of direct and guiding companionship with many of our best artists. Himself a near inheritor of the finest intellectualism of France, acquainted with artists and critics from Paris to Tokio, widely read in the classics of the East and West, an observer of cosmopolitan and of savage man-he represented to us a kind of universality of taste and worldly wisdom and was the living link between America, prone to forget its own yesterdays, and all the great past.

Two incidents stand out in my mind among many reminiscences. As an under-classman in the Romanist College at Fordham, John La Farge read with a Jesuit tutor who was a bibliopole, and the lad began and finished his Homer in the editio princeps. A few years ago a party of American biologists touched at a remote Polynesian island. Seeing white men, the interpreters came running down the beach, shouting: “How is John ?” There was no need of explanations. On either side they recalled a gently quizzical wanderer who camped near the native villages, reverently observing their rites and gradually overcoming their superstitious reluctance to be sketched. I like to recall that the revolutionist Gauguin and the eclectic John La Farge both craved this bath of primitive life; both had it, and both variously found rejuvenation in the experience.

The artists of America have come mostly of old colonial British stock and their development has usually involved some struggle with ascetic Puritan traditions. The La Farge family, which was gladly adopted into the urbane society of Washington Irving’s New York, had kept its Continental and Catholic affiliations. As a young midshipman, John La Farge’s father was captured in the disastrous San Domingo expedition of 18o6. He escaped to the United States, made a competence as a shipping-merchant, and married Mlle. Binnse de St. Victor, whose kinsmen are still remembered as scholars and publicists in Paris. Some time after the incunabular episode of Homer, young John La Farge (in his twenty-first year, 1856) went to Paris and began to work with Couture. Perceiving the new student’s promise and dreading to make “a little Couture of him,” the master set him adrift. Drifting meant the salon of, the St. Victors, where men of Gautier’s type and Turgeneff’s congregated -the old masters of the Louvre and, perhaps more than all, the resonant decorations of Delacroix. I have sometimes thought that if Mr. La Farge showed me special indulgence, it was because at our first meeting I told him how I had discovered for myself and loved the “Heliodorus” and the “Wrestling Jacob,” of St. Sulpice.

For some years in New York, young La Farge struggled against his manifest vocation. He read law, pursued his art-historical studies -the Arundel Society woodcuts of the Paduan Giottos were his delight-drenched himself in philosophy, history, and belles-lettres. Soon the color-prints of Japan were added to his portfolios, and his final emergence as an experimental painter of flowers and landscapes is due almost equally to this new inspiration and to the friendship of William Hunt. Trained in the direct methods of Couture, an admirer and friend of Millet, a keen wit in his own right, Hunt was just the mentor to bring to focus the discursive eclecticism of La Farge. They worked together about the rocky meadows and tidal coves of Newport. William James was at this time another of Hunt’s proteges and assistants, and gave great promise as a mural decorator. Art was soon to yield him to philosophy-and for the classic con-tours that we might have had on our walls we have instead the iridescent vagueness of the pragmatic philosophy.

Through the sixties, La Farge (now married) produced, under Preraphaelite influence tempered and broadened by that of Japan, his most charming easel pictures. There are singularly poetical transcripts of vales in the New-port moorland, a house in snow, above all a series of great flowers-water-lilies, magnolias, and the like-painted in heroic proportions with boldest stroke and richest coloring. Toward the ‘seventies, illustration served as a recreation. In “The Afrit and the Bottle,”

“The Pied Piper,” “The Wolf Charmer,” and “Bishop Hatto,” a shrewd observer will mark the drastic teaching of Hokusai. For La Farge’s intimate landscape and flower pieces the time was not yet ripe. With the Hudson River School, now in its hectic autumnal glory, the scenic ideal was peremptory. The White Mountains, the Catskills-these were the panoramic staple; great painters appropriately frequented greater mountains-the Rockies and the Andes. So that La Farge’s turnover to mural painting in the ‘seventies was at once an advance and a retreat.

Before passing to his monumental designs on canvas and in glass, some general considerations as to his talent: He was the most learned painter of our times. From the mystics of early China to those of Barbizon, the history of painting was an open book to him; and, beyond the mere practice, his curiosity constantly moved about aesthetic theory. To him the great art of old became a second nature, and with nature was equally his reservoir of forms. So he never hesitated to appropriate an older motive when it fitted his need, and he mocked the critics who failed to recognize his obvious borrowings. If one analyzes his most ambitious decoration, “The Ascension” (painted in 1887 for the New York church of that name), its composite character is evident. The composition is merely a grandiose amplification of Palma Vecchio’s “Assumption” in the Venice Academy. The landscape itself has, under Japanese leading, gained suavity; the soaring Christ in a wreath of attendant angels is a Venetian enlargement of an Umbrian conception; the color has taken much from Titian and more from Delacroix-and yet the whole thing is unified, rhythmic, full of the specific hue and urbanity of La Farge himself. This derivative element in his work was at times a weakness. When hurried, he paid with his taste rather than with his observation.

Still it is much to have had an American painter on easy borrowing terms with Giotto, Mantegna, Giovanni Bellini, Titian, and Raphael. La Farge carried into his great designs some of the defects of his desultory training. His figures do not always stand well; he adopted the shifts and, more rarely, the make-shifts that we find in all swift executants; but he rarely missed the accent of the monumental style. I have heard our best living drafts-man in one breath smile at the drawing of the exedra in the “Plato” made for St. Paul, Minnesota, and sigh for its loftiness of conception.

He renewed the lost tradition of the Renaissance workshop. From 1876 (when he organized that gallant emergency squad which under cruel conditions of time and convenience deco-rated Trinity Church, Boston) Mr. La Farge always had about him a corps of assistants. ranging from intelligent artisans to accomplished artists. Upon all of them he impressed his will so completely that even their invention cast itself in his forms. One who was long his chief assistant told me that there were scores of drawings and sketches about the studio which might be his own or the master’s-he honestly could not tell. A well-known art critic pleaded that the cartoon of the “Confucius” (every stroke of which was executed by this assistant) should be preserved in a museum as an imperishable memorial of La Farge’s handiwork. His workshop dealt impartially with designs for glass or wall, accepting also humble decorative jobs, and drawing in on occasion wood-carvers and inlayers, sculptors, and even the casual visitor.

And here I am reminded of a club discussion concerning sculpture by proxy, the sub-letting of contracts, the employment of students’ sketches, etc. Mr. La Farge diverted an argument that was becoming too emphatic by the following anecdote:

“The other day,” he said, “I was painting on the garden of the `Confucius’ while my chief assistant was working on one of the heads. In came V. I., and I set him at a bit of drapery. Time was valuable, you see. L. looked in, and I set him at a bit of foreground foliage. I saw that the dead coloring of the sky needed deepening. At that moment my secretary, Miss B., entered with a letter. I gave her a broad brush, showed her how to charge it and sweep it with a mechanical stroke, and against her protest she, too, was enlisted.”

With that ineffable restrained smile of his he turned to me and asked: “Now, whose picture was that?”

And I was lucky enough to blunder out: “It was a fine La Farge.”

In this spirit the great decorators have al-ways worked, and it is only by such devoted co-operation that we can hope to revive the monumental style. Mr. La Farge’s genius for leadership-such men as Kenyon Cox, F. D. Millet, Will H. Low, W. B. Van Ingen, Humphreys Johnston, Ivan Olinsky, and the late Francis Lathrop, among others, have gladly served him-has almost as great importance as his painting. If there were many such shops as his, the complete irreality of much of our art instruction would be abated. Such clever and legitimate use of assistance did not prevent him from achieving remarkable auto-graphic feats. The whole landscape of the “Confucius” was painted by himself from sketches made in Japan. The grandiose “Moses on Sinai” (in the same series), with its magnificent volcanic landscape, a Hawaiian reminiscence, was begun and finished with his own hand, though he had reached his seventieth year. But he would never admit any inferiority in the work done by his helpers, and here he felt like his great predecessors of the Renaissance. I think that he was right. Nothing is more truly his, for example, than the heads of the sages in the “Confucius”-which were painted by Ivan Olinsky.

It was the architect H. H. Richardson who first gave La Farge his chance as a decorator. In the last months of 1876 the great spaces of Trinity Church were filled with designs that subsequent rearrangements of the church have sadly marred. At every point there were obstacles. Mr. La Farge had even to find the colors, as it then was the practice of the professional decorators to use fading hues that soon provided new jobs. Reviewing this work after many years, Mr. La Farge admitted its defects but maintained that almost every bit of it was “living and would be impossible to duplicate.” The next year he was working at two panels, “The Resurrection” and “The Marys and the Angels,” for St. Thomas’s, New York. Here he had the aid of, the young St. Gaudens, but the decorative ensemble planned for the apse remained incomplete for lack of funds, and a few years ago they perished by fire. During this time his attention was increasingly engrossed with designing for glass, but (besides minor decorations) he painted in 1885 two panels for the Church of the Incarnation; and, in 1887, after his return from Japan, “The Ascension,” which is perhaps his most important religious picture.

Among decorations for private houses I need mention only the most complete. In the New York house of Cornelius Vanderbilt, La Farge contrived painted designs of “Night and Day” and “The Seasons,” designed carved wood-work, inlaid and incrusted in Far Eastern fashion, set one of his largest windows, and even invented the incidental embroideries and hangings. In 1888 he planned the general decorative scheme for the great Church of the Paulist Fathers, but the fatality that attended most of his larger enterprises permitted only a partial achievement of the decoration. The years 1886 and 1890 were notable for the Japanese sojourn and the long voyage in Polynesia. Refreshed by these intervals, he pursued with the seal of perfection his inventions in opalescent glass, enlarged the pictorial record of his South Sea voyaging, but, with the exception of two fine lunettes for Bowdoin College, did rather little in the way of wall-painting. From this time, too, lecturing and writing increasingly engaged him and he won substantial distinction in still another art. From his seventieth year dates an amazing recrudescence. With the zest and energy of a young man he undertook four great lunettes for the State-house of Minnesota. Hebrew, Greek, Chinese, and Mediaeval Law were the subjects. The treatment was at once decorative and realistic. He refused to proceed with the symbolic garden that forms the background of the “Confucius” until it had been approved by a Chinese philosopher. The “Moses” and the “Confucius” in this series may be regarded as his ripest productions; the “Plato” is hardly inferior. The whole series reveals the inner fire that burned high in this invalid about to die.

My acquaintance with Mr. La Farge dates only from these last seven years. To me, as to a host of remote admirers, he displayed almost impersonally the treasures of his spirit. But John La Farge could do nothing with complete impersonality. However far his talk ranged-and it often embraced strange incidents of his own young manhood, mellow glints of Oriental wisdom or classic lore, the doings of complicated men in Japan or of simple men in the South Seas-whatever the range of his talk, he always took the listener along. Men thronged to hear him, but he never gave that sense of monologue which Carlyle is said to have left. For Mr. La Farge, his talk was merely one of the many fine arts that he practised. Under uncongenial surroundings he would fall back upon exquisite trifling, and with the right hearer his eloquence could swell to an organ note-for a moment only, and then came the quizzical warning smile which said that we must not be too serious for too long. Out of the fulness of his reading and experience he so modulated his evenings that there never was a sense of haste, incompleteness, or abrupt conclusion. About him there was something of the fine reserved geniality of a Roman prelate-his head seemed made for a cardinal’s cap-but this attitude never sank into the merely professional. In spite of his frail form, evidently myopic eyes, and general sense of extreme physical delicacy, his effect was of robust and almost aggressive fastidiousness. I trust that some of his intimates may commemorate fittingly the talk of John La Farge. The subject is rich and treacherous. To do it well would require almost the tact of the master spokesman that is gone.

My own experience in this matter is comparatively slight and was confined to the after-glow that witnessed the decorations for St. Paul. May I recall one evening in which he gently rebuked me as a critic for writing as if the artist were free to choose between many courses ? He went on to show how the first firm line set on a canvas excludes all incompatible lines thenceforth, so that by the third or fourth leading contour, the design must advance by a kind of fatality. Similarly the earliest assertion of color limits subsequent possibilities; the second almost determines the scheme thenceforth; always the picture itself is diminishing the artist’s freedom and reducing him to obedience. All this was done with the most humorous ease; and slight gestures, subtly narrowing in sweep as they gained in intensity, accompanied the demonstration. He left me to infer that the mass of bad pictures in the world come about because so many painters neither perceive nor obey the inner law of the picture itself, but in the name of freedom work throughout at lawless haphazard.

I like to recall, too, that once I consulted him on certain curious and interesting characters in the early history of Newport, his summer home. There were forgotten incidents bearing on the early reaction of Europe on the young republic, a little chapter in the history of taste to be elucidated. Without request of mine he pursued the rather blind trail zealously, interviewed old people, and re-created for me in fair if shadowy contours the image of a legendary past. A literary plan of mine (of which this episode was part) came to naught, but I feel that the incident has worth if only as showing how vitally John La Farge had lived into our native American tradition. His cosmopolitanism was not of the sort that scorns what is near at hand. The quaint New-port aesthete who knew Marie Antoinette and Count Fersen and lived to see his own gentle associates succumb politically to the shouters for Andrew Jackson-this forgotten great gentleman took rank in Mr. La Farge’s interest with the sages of China, the literary kings of Gautier’s Paris, and the tawny monarchs of Polynesia.

Mr. La Farge’s writing grew naturally out of his talking and is hardly to be treated apart from it. His two volumes on the Great Masters abound in just and happy reflections, but they lack his most personal accent. The Scammon lectures on the Barbizon School, called “The Higher Life in Art,” which he de-livered in 1903 before the Chicago Art Institute, are for him perfunctory. Some of his best writing is included in the volume, An Artist’s Letters from Japan. By rare good luck, the lectures which he gave in the Metropolitan Museum in 1893 were collected in a book, Considerations on Painting, and though Mr. La Farge did a considerable amount of occasional writing of note, it is this book which shows him most himself. In it he exposed all the facets of his rich and harmonious nature, and the revelation is, while inspiriting and ever fascinating, not quite enlightening. That law of sacrifice which he required and practised in his own art is not practised by him in the alien art of letters. Every proposition is curiously involved and qualified. He hesitates before affirmations; the exceptions obscure the rules. Of this fact he was wholly conscious and he excused it by the necessary complication of his material, by the inherent difficulty of converting facts of vision into terms of hearing and understanding, and finally by his desire to tell the whole truth. So Considerations on Painting lacks the firm contour of the classics of art criticism, but in compensation it is perhaps the honestest book that was ever written on the subject, and its intimations (like the author’s own painting) are made not in line and mass but in reverberations of color. It is difficult reading, but hardly another book of modern times so irradiates the finest wisdom.

Hear the retort courteous to precisians who require a sign-post: “Offensive to them must be the work of art, the man, the kind of view of any truth, which cannot easily be held in a short formula, which has any impression of superiority-and escapes their grasp.” Of art in general, has the creative act ever been better described than in these words: “Each form of art is a restoration of nature to what she should be; an emphasis of some hidden view that escapes us, otherwise, from the size of the entire world”? Characteristically, his finest comment on the consummate art of Greece was evoked not by the Parthenon marbles but by divinatory reading of the rude yet vivid portrait-heads then lately discovered at Fayum:

Anything made, anything even influenced by that little race of artists, the Greeks, brings back our minds to its first, legitimate, ever-continuing admiration; with them the floating Goddess of Chance took off her sandals and remained.

After his death the South Sea journals, of which Miss Cecilia Waern’s memoirs gave a delightful foretaste, were published, as well as a new book of criticism entitled One Hundred Masterpieces.

In all of the greatest artists (Mr. La Farge once wrote) “there is a humble workman who knows his trade and likes it.” The sentiment is significant of his own long devotion to the art of painting in glass, and to the zeal with which he endeavored to perfect its methods.. His most notable discovery, that of composing in opalescent glass, was as simple as the standing egg of Columbus. In the early ‘seventies Mr. La Farge undertook a stained-glass window and was appalled by the mean quality of the available glass. The best pieces, he found, were culled by the European designers, and the remnants were sent to us.

One morning his eye fell upon a piece of commercial opalescent “china”-a soap-dish or the like. Struck by its glow, he tried it with the other glass and found that its shimmering hues served wonderfully well as a harmonizer and intensifier of the other colors. For a time he bought toilet articles made of this material and cut out of them disks which he set in his windows. Soon followed the manufacture of similar but much finer material on a large scale. As he experimented he discovered new uses for corrugated pot-metal-glass stained through all its substance. The wrinkles yielded not merely splendid complementary reflections, as crimson upon certain greens, and violets in certain yellows, but could be selected or contrived to represent drapery or textures of architecture and landscape. He invented not merely more splendid colors but also denser translucencies than had ever before been known-and he tells us himself that he was stimulated to his researches by a desire to rival the glory of Chinese inlays of precious stones on jade. Had he done no more than to provide these new and beautiful materials, he would be sure of a limited immortality in the craft. But he did much more than that. He found the art of painting in glass, on the one hand, debased through bad materials-thin surface enamels instead of the old lustrous pot-metal-and, on the other hand, cramped by imitation of archaic designs. Men had forgotten that the supporting leads were the real skeleton and must be treated expressively as outlines. He naturally adapted for windows the sort of figure subjects that he had already used for wall spaces. Thus he rejuvenated window-making much as the great Venetian painters of the Renaissance renewed the decaying art of mosaic. His work and theirs have been criticised for the same reason.

It is urged that a colored window should not be pictorial. The small, subdivided, schematic designs that we find in Chartres Cathedral are held up as the canon. I cannot argue this matter at length. There are people who think that Tintoretto and Veronese were poor decorators as compared with the Byzantines or Puvis de Chavannes. Time is lost in persuading those who depart from such perfectly crystallized preconceptions. The common sense of the matter perhaps is this: When glass ceases to be merely decorative and, being monumentally pictorial, becomes the major adornment of an interior, all the rest of the decoration should be subordinated to the windows and of course harmonized with them. There is no more pathetic aspect of Mr. La Farge’s activity than this, that he sent away masterpiece after masterpiece to be installed amid flimsy architecture and nondescript decoration. Because the old schematic glass and its better modern imitations are beautiful, seems no reason for confining the art within a style adapted to an architecture and a painting that are no longer ours.

A mere catalogue of Mr. La Farge’s fine windows would occupy the space of this essay. Among them he liked to emphasize “The Battle Window,” in Memorial Hall at Harvard. It was finished in 1878 and embodied all his discoveries to that date. Plain and opalescent glass are varied by amethysts and other translucent stones; there is plating, doubling of the glass to secure depth of color, and even a little enamel painting upon the glass. So impetuous a design as these young warriors charging has perhaps never had so splendid an incarnation. No illustration gives any impression of the magnificence of these windows.

By his personal energy and example he trained workmen capable of conveying to glass the mere indications of a color sketch. It was not long before a host of imitators arose; and, though men of talent were among them, few have handled successfully this color instrument of many keys. To the improvement of materials and processes he set himself continually. By a minute mosaic fused together in the furnace, he found that he could get (with-out painting) all the subtleties of modelling (as faces and hands). But the expense of the method prevented its extensive use. By fusing a thin metal binder between the plates of glass, he eliminated the wide black leads. His aim was ever to give to composition in glass the freedom of painting itself. He even perfected a method by which no metal binder is necessary. The famous peacock window (now a chief ornament of the Worcester Art Museum) is the finest _expression of this technic. In a manner, it combines the beauties of glass, lacquer, and enamel. I doubt if pure color has ever before had its play so fully. In a word, he carried the art of design in glass to finesses before undreamed of, and a hardy genius might well begin where he left off. But these latter refinements imply a patience that is rarely to be found in the modern artist and a liberality at which even the new-style Maecenas balks.

In the right use of memory Mr. La Farge laid the essence of art, and its chief duty he held to be a kind of glorified commemoration. That any beautiful thing should pass away unrecorded was painful to him. He himself was to perpetuate an Arcadian beauty that wanes to its sure end. Cruising in the South Seas, in 189o, with his friend Mr. Henry Adams, Mr. La Farge observed the solemn and beautiful rites that had enchanted Herman Melville fifty years before. Among these nude folk the body still had its eloquence. Their occupations by land and sea awakened echoes of the Odyssey; their racial dances had a rhythmic character all their own. Into the life of these children of nature the wanderers entered sympathetically. Mataafa, the dethroned king of Samoa, was their friend. In Tahiti, by adoption of the Chieftainess Ariitamai, they gained the right to claim the God-Shark as their ancestor. With a singular intensity, simplicity, and objectivity, Mr. La Farge set him-self to sketching the islanders. With a directness that he may have learned from the Japanese, he deployed sapphire sierras and feathery green date-palms across curving and reverberant skies. But the finest sketches are those which catch the collective life of the island folk. Here you see the swaying brown torsos in the Siva dance, by night or in the obscurity of a thatched lodge; here the Taupo (a maiden charged with the duty of greeting strangers) prances down and her flower garlands fly widely; here gray elders sit in conference, or a dull girl leads a blind man along the coral strand. What distinguishes these sketches from much painting of exotic subjects is their sincerity. Think how often the Orient has been exploited in the melodramatic manner of Byron, and then take any of these South Sea studies in which the scene is portrayed for its own sake. Mr. La Farge, the sage, the fastidious cosmopolitan, had the art to become as a little child-or even as these brown friends of his-and thus he saw their life, not with their eyes (for such vision is denied them), but keenly, honestly, and with human sympathy.

When I think of the manifold charm and accomplishment of the man that is gone, I marvel that his fame was not greater. The elite of two hemispheres valued him, but he made no such public impression as, say, Lord Leighton, a man of smaller and more restricted gifts. Henry James calls the Church of the Ascension, with its great wall-painting and many windows, “one of the most appealing of personal monuments.” I linger in it many times a year; and, though occasionally a sup-pliant comes for prayer, I have never seen any one observe either the “Ascending Christ” in the chancel or the storied windows in the walls. Perhaps Mr. La Farge’s essentially fastidious and aristocratic personality-an aristocracy, however, compatible with universal sympathy -made him an alien in a civilization that loves uniformity and averages. Even more the range of his accomplishment may have baffled the public. Mankind, as he himself remarked, mistrusts what it cannot readily classify-and Mr. La Farge defied classifications. With a rueful sense of the fact that the public wants the artist to be as overtly a specialist as the policeman, Mr. La Farge’s friend, Elihu Vedder, writes in his charming autobiography:

How often I have wished that I had dedicated myself to the painting of cabbages ! I mean painting them splendidly, with all the witchery of light and shade and color, until the picture should contain all the pictorial elements needed for a Descent from the Cross or a Transfiguration and no gallery would be complete without a cabbage by V.

John La Farge, like his old friend, declined to specialize in cabbages, and both have had to find their reward otherwise than in public acclaim. It is idle to guess how the future will regard the art of John La Farge. Personally I believe there will be an imperishable residuum of his great and varied accomplishment, and I am sure that so long as any live who heard his voice, his name will evoke, with an old elation, a deep regret.