Yale University Art Gallery/ Yale University Press, 224 pp., $55.00
At the time of his death in 1910, at the age of seventy-five, John La Farge was among the most revered American artists. Known for his large-scale public murals for courtrooms and state capitols, and for his masterly stained-glass windows in churches and Gilded Age mansions, he could seem to his admirers an American counterpart to the versatile English designer William Morris. Today, a hundred years later, when his work is recognized at all, it is his more intimate paintings that are likely to attract the attention of a visitor at a museum: deft watercolors that register the evanescent effects of seasonal change, or small oil landscapes of rock-strewn pastures, executed in the darker tones of Millet or Corot, that evoke a mood as much as a specific place.
At first, the exhibition of John La Farge’s work in the South Pacific, during a yearlong voyage begun in 1890, gave the impression of fascinating, often beautiful things left unfinished, abandoned, or unresolved. Originally mounted at Yale, and then filling four rooms at the recently renovated Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, the exhibition showed tiny sketchbooks with their deft penciled contours and verbal reminders of wave and cloud (“blue reflecting top sky like blue jap silk”), photographs purchased or snapped along the way by La Farge’s traveling companion, the historian Henry Adams, and iridescent watercolor sketches of native rituals performed beneath moonlit palm trees. But the culminating works of art we were led to expect never quite followed from so much painstaking preparatory research and industrious documentation.
No sooner had this first impression coalesced, however, than another, more lasting, supplanted it. Instead of wishing that translucent washes of purple and pink would somehow thicken into Gauguin’s ecstatic walls of color, or that provisional jottings of word and image would move decisively toward a dispassionate ethnographic report, the viewer realized that the tentative and fragmentary works on view were, after all, what La Farge’s elusive art consists of. These are the distinctive expressions of what Adams, who admired above all his friend’s achievement in reviving the medieval art of stained glass, called La Farge’s “opaline” mind, with its “infinite shades and refractions of light, and with color toned down to the finest gradations.”
As soon as one stops trying to force La Farge into some preexisting category—exotic beachcomber in the wake of Melville and Pierre Loti, amateur anthropologist, Gilded Age gentleman-aesthete—one finds oneself in the presence of a distinctively odd and affecting artist. La Farge’s voyages, at a time when the archipelagoes of the South Pacific were destinations only for the wealthiest or most reckless travelers, retain their own fascination. The art that emerged from them, as the contributors to the excellent catalog of the exhibition make clear, still awaits …