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The Afterglow of John La Farge

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National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.
John La Farge: The Entrance to Tautira River, Tahiti. Fisherman Spearing a Fish,, 53 9/16 x 60 inches, circa 1895

In an interesting essay, the art historian Henry Adams (a distant relative of La Farge’s companion) notes that the canvas, from the Addison Gallery’s collection, was first framed in such a way as to conceal the inscription, but has recently been reframed to reveal it. The inscription, as Adams remarks, describes how the painting was done the day that La Farge and Adams left Samoa, “that the boat was held for him while he completed it, and that he finally left the painting incomplete.” And yet, it is difficult to imagine what further work might have rendered such a picture more nearly complete. Perhaps La Farge, an artist in love with elusive motion and fleeting visual effects, felt in this case that he had carried things “too far,” and had sacrificed immediacy in the interest of a “finished” portrait.

The ramshackle French colony of Tahiti, to which La Farge and Adams traveled next, was too buttoned-up for La Farge’s taste; “the natives all wear clothes of some kind,” Adams noted, so “the temptation to paint is less than in Samoa.” Impatient to move on to Fiji, Adams was disheartened to learn that all berths were taken in a steamship scheduled for departure. He tried in vain to buy a sailboat outright, and reluctantly settled in for the six-week wait for the steamer’s return.

Had the boat been delayed five more days, La Farge might have met Paul Gauguin debarking for his own Tahitian adventure. The comparison between these two painters of “the dream of Tahiti,” the subject of a catalog essay by Elizabeth Childs, is arresting, but ultimately less instructive than one might expect. The artists moved in different milieus in Tahiti—La Farge among the English-speaking clans of an earlier regime, while Gauguin lived among the Tahitians allied with the French colonizers. It is interesting to learn that the same dealer, Paul Durand-Ruel, eventually represented both men and that both based paintings on nostalgic photographs for the tourist trade by Charles Georges Spitz.

Aesthetically, however, the two artists cancel one another out. La Farge’s tentative pictures make Gauguin seem vulgar and obvious; Gauguin’s bold and decisive compositions make La Farge’s more tenuous promptings all but invisible. La Farge later dismissed Gauguin himself as a “wild and stupid” Frenchman, but was forced to concede, on encountering his work, that “there was something of the man who has found something.” What Gauguin found, however willfully, was a “primitive” Polynesia in full bloom, a mythical place of fresh beginnings—including his fourteen-year-old Tahitian mistress.

What, then, had La Farge found? Setting suns, civilizations in eclipse, a fragile second paradise, as the title of the exhibition notes, to match his beloved Paradise Valley near Newport. In the South Pacific, he felt that he was “present at the end of something—the twilight of a past.” La Farge’s nocturne of a circle of Tahitian women singing polyphonic choral music based on Protestant hymns looks like a funeral wake; listening to “these quiet sad people,” he remarked that “the life was gone” from “the old song and dance.”

And yet one feels as one follows the looping itineraries of La Farge and Adams that the more pressing extinction they feared was their own. An aristocratic flair for adventure in far-flung lands, a lively curiosity about the arts of other cultures, a cultivated amateur’s avoidance of values merely commercial—these were the traits they stood for, even as American society moved inexorably toward boss-ridden politics and crass industrial and financial exploitation. For younger friends like Henry James—a fellow art student in Newport in 1860 and the subject of a searching and sensitive portrait in profile now at the Century Club in New York City—La Farge could stand (and perhaps might stand today) for alternative routes and sensibilities. “He opened up to us,” James wrote, “though perhaps to me in particular…prospects and possibilities that made the future flush and swarm.”

The future no longer seemed flush to John La Farge in 1891, as he made the zigzag return, from Tahiti to Fiji and up to Ceylon, the Suez Canal, and Marseille. At the end of the journey, Adams lamented how the increasingly frail artist, at age fifty-six, “reluctantly crawled away towards New York to resume the grinding routine of studio work at an age when life runs low.” With the sunset, however, came an afterglow for John La Farge. Back in his Tenth Street studio, as he worked from his sketchbooks and plumbed his own burgeoning memory, the paintings assumed ever more iridescent colors. Red fanned into fuchsia; yellow was distilled to chartreuse.

A painting like the astonishing The Entrance to Tautira River, Tahiti. Fisherman Spearing a Fish at the National Gallery in Washington, which La Farge tinkered with for fifteen years and was still on his easel when he died in 1910, surpasses Gauguin in its hallucinatory sheets of bright color and boldly anticipates the coloristic, never-to-be-seen-in-nature effects of Matisse and Vlaminck. A fisherman in orange trunks hurls a spear toward the mother-of-pearl water while purple mountains in the background bask in the glow of the setting sun. Leaving a picture like this unfinished was surely a way to prolong the afterglow. The address that La Farge chose, late in life, for international cables he sent out fused the “news-less” Pacific with the urgencies of home: “Samoa, New York.”

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