La Farge, John, 1835-1910
John La Farge was born in New York City in March 1835 to parents of French ancestry. His interest in art began during his training at Mount St. Mary’s College and St. John’s College (now Fordham University). He had only the practice of law in mind as a career until he returned from his first visit to Paris, France where he studied art with Thomas Couture and became acquainted with famous literary people of the city. La Farge subsequently worked with painter William Morris Hunt in Newport.
Even La Farge’s earliest drawings and landscapes, done in Newport, after his marriage in 1861 to Margaret Mason Perry, granddaughter of Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, show marked originality, especially in the handling of color values. They also display the influence of Japanese art, the study of which he pioneered. It should be noted that his wife’s grand uncle Commodore Matthew Calbraith Perry had opened Japan to Western influences in 1854.
Between 1859 and 1870, LaFarge illustrated Tennyson’s Enoch Arden and Robert Browning’s Men and Women. Breadth of observation and structural conception and a vivid imagination and sense of color are shown by his mural decorations. His first work in mural painting was done in Trinity Church, Boston, in 1876. Then followed his decorations in the Church of the Ascension (the large altarpiece) and St. Paul’s Chapel (Columbia University), New York. At age 71, he executed four great lunettes in the Minnesota State Capitol at St. Paul representing the history of law, and for the Supreme Court building at Baltimore, a similar series with Justice as the theme. In addition, he generated vast numbers of other paintings and water colors, notably those recording his extensive travels in Asia and the South Pacific.
His labors in almost every type of art earned the Cross of the Legion of Honor from the French Government, membership in the principal artistic societies of America, and the presidency of the National Society of Mural Painters from 1899 through 1904. In that latter year, he was one of the first seven artists chosen for membership in the American Academy of Arts and Letters. La Farge possessed an extraordinary knowledge of literature, art, and languages (ancient and modern). He venerated the traditions of religious art and preserved always his Roman Catholic faith. He died at Butler Hospital in Providence in 1910 and was interred in Brooklyn’s Greenwood Cemetery.
John’s descendants were also noteworthy. His sons Christopher and Oliver Hazard Perry La Farge became prominent architects, and another son, John, became a Jesuit priest, a prolific author, and a pioneer in the national civil rights movement. His grandson Oliver H.P. La Farge was a noted anthropologist, Indian rights advocate, and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.
-(Dr.) Patrick T. Conley