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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

John La Farge

It is not uncommon in studying the lives of artists to find stories of men and women who became artists against all odds, and then had to struggle with all the "slings and arrows of outrageous fortune" to achieve greatness. Sometimes we even find that the struggle was as much within themselves as with the harsh world in which they lived. It's therefore refreshing to study the life of an outstanding American artists who flies in the face of this stereotype. His name was John La Farge and, as they saying goes, he had everything going for him. There are very few artist of whom I have ever written with whom I would gladly change places, but this man knew what he wanted and worked hard to get it. This man's life was seemingly as flawless as was his art.

Athens, 1894, John La Farge
La Farge was born in 1835 in New York City. He was the oldest of several children in an affluent, well-educated family French immigrants. His education was impeccable, with special attention to literature, French, and his Roman Catholic religion. Drawing lessons came from his grandfather. Initially at least, his art was seen as merely a hobby. He entered college as a law student, only to find, that painting was much more enthralling than torts and contracts. In 1856, he jumped at a chance to quit school and go to Paris where family connections gained him acceptance in the city's literary and artistic circles. There he studied and copied the old masters until his father's death forced his return to the U.S. and another brief bout with law school. By 1859, under the influence of Newport painter, William Morris Hunt, he had decided upon a career in art.

Boston's Trinity Church, interior,
1880s, John La Farge
Even though he was an accomplished easel painter, La Farge is best known for his murals, his art career coming at the height of mural painting in public buildings in this country. His 1894 oil on canvas mural, Athens (above) for Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, is perhaps his most famous. However La Farge's talents also extended to designing stained glass windows (another artistic rage at the time) as well as large-scale interior design projects such as the interior for H. H.  Richardson's Boston Trinity Church (right). This led to commissions for murals and interiors for many other public and private spaces. Having conquered nearly every art at which he tried his hand, in the 1890s, La Farge set off for Japan and the South Pacific to absorb a balance of oriental culture as well. Many Japanese influences colored his work in the latter part of his career. His Polynesian painting (below) is often compared to Gauguin's, who had escaped to Tahiti about the same time. Someone once questioned me, wondering if all great artists led  unhappy, turbulent, often traumatic lives. I told them, no, it just seems that way. Here's one who didn't.
Portrait of Faase the Taupo, 1881.
John La Farge
The Great Statue of Amida Buddha
at Kamakura, 1886, John La Farge

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