John La Farge 1835-1910

Still Life with Candelabra, Plate and Japanese Incense Burner

  • 12 7/8 x 9 3/8 inches (32.7 x 23.8 cm)
  • Watercolor
  • 1865

Why We Love It

La Farge is known for his extraordinary skill with the watercolor medium, and this still life study demonstrates his delicate handling of the material. Using loose thin washes as well as tighter passages of detail, La Farge transforms these household objects into an attractive and compelling subject.

The Value

La Farge was a master of the watercolor medium. These paintings were and remain some of his most valuable and most collected works. This fine still life offers an opportunity to own a work by a great American artist at an affordable price.

Artist Background

1835: Born in New York City; First studied art with his maternal grandfather, who was a miniaturist; Attended college at Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland; 1856: Upon graduation, traveled to Europe where he visited France, Holland, Belgium, and England; 1859-67: Produced his most important still-life paintings, which demonstrate the influence of French, Japanese, and Pre-Raphaelite art; 1867-71: Began painting landscapes, many of which were exhibited at the National Academy of Design (NAD); 1872-73: Traveled to Europe, which reinforced his interest in medieval stained glass windows; 1876: Asked to take complete charge of interior design at Trinity Church, Boston. Many other such commissions would follow; 1886: Traveled to Japan for the first time. The trip was hugely influential on his work for the remainder of his career; 1890-91: Traveled to the South Pacific, visiting Hawaii, Samoa, Japan, and Tahiti; 1910: Suffered a mental breakdown, from which he never recovered. Died that same year.

“[Henry] Adams eulogized: ‘La Farge was a great man – this is rarely true of artists. Take away the brush from Sargent or Whistler, or the pen from Balzac, what have you? But La Farge…needed nothing but his own soul to make him great.’”1

John La Farge was a rare figure in American art for he worked in a myriad of genres, media, and styles. Not only renowned for his landscape and still life painting, he was an innovator in decorative arts, having invented opalescent stained glass. “La Farge’s work was almost encyclopedic in its variety. He bridged the major and the minor arts as well as visual and verbal modes; he dabbled with architecture and sculpture; wrote poetry, travelogues, histories, and art criticism; made easel paintings and mural paintings; drew illustrations; invented a new mode of wood engraving; worked in watercolor, completely transformed the medium of stained glass; and freely dispensed his advice to practitioners in other fields.”2 Although La Farge had such a tremendous range, there was an underlying leitmotif which strung together what may otherwise have seemed like disjointed phases of his career: nature. La Farge was devoted to capturing the essence of nature in his art, and pursued this ambition fervently. He disparaged studio painters of his generation who resorted to using formulas for backdrops of natural settings. He painted en plein air, expressing that he wanted “to be as free from recipes as possible, and to indicate very carefully, in every part, the exact time of day and circumstances of light.”3

John La Farge grew up in New York City within a melting pot of cultures that was his own family. French was his first language as his parents were French, and he learned German from his Alsation nurse. His English was not perfected until his German nurse was replaced by an English governess. Thus the artist was nurtured in a European environment which made him a unique American, drawn to the cultures and art of both the old world and the new. He would ultimately cultivate a style of painting that expressed a “French sophistication that La Farge aspired to apply to the American landscape.”4 Upon finishing college in 1856 he sailed for Europe where he frequented all types of artists, writers and philosophers and studied briefly with Thomas Couture in Paris. He traveled throughout France, Belgium, Germany and Denmark and was greatly influenced by the exposure to European art as well as the architecture and stained glass windows of the Medieval churches. He returned to the United States sooner than he had anticipated due to his father’s illness, but he nevertheless continued to study in a French vein with the architect Robert Morris Hunt who had just returned from Paris after having been at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. It was in 1859 that La Farge went to Newport, Rhode Island to study painting only with Robert’s brother, William Hunt. Newport and its environs would serve as La Farge’s home and muse for many years. 5

Another tremendous stimulus for La Farge’s work was Japanese art, perhaps because of its elegance and commitment to nature’s simplicity. “Under the influence of Japanese prints he introduced a whole group of new effects into American painting: the use of asymmetrical composition, the exploitation of large areas of empty space, and the use of brilliant color in flat planes.”6

1 Henry Adams, Kathleen A. Foster, Henry A. La Farge, H. Barbara Weinberg, Linnea H. Wren and James L. Yarnell, John La Farge (New York: Abeville Press Publishers), p. 14.
2 Ibid, p. 14.
3 Ibid, p. 25.
4 Ibid, p. 20.
5 Ibid, p. 19.
6 Ibid, p. 21.