Color in a Higher Key: John La Farge

John La Farge and Paul Gauguin never met, which is just as well. Had they done so, these two painters, one an American academician, the other a French bohemian, would surely have despised one another. Indeed, even without meeting Gauguin, La Farge was comfortable dismissing him as "wild and stupid...[a man who] went into the wilderness and lived the simple life-the cocoanut and bread-fruit life."1

And yet they very nearly did meet in Tahiti. After four months on the island, spent in the company of the eminent writer Henry Adams, La Farge left on June 4, 1891. Only five days later, Gauguin arrived on his first sojourn there, which lasted more than two years. The French artist's years in the South Seas have been told often, of course, and they have passed into the mythology of modernism. But the journeys of John La Farge, though well enough publicized in their day, have been largely ignored by subsequent generations of art historians. To remedy that deficit, Elisabeth Hodermarsky, Sut­phin Family Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery, has curated an exhibition that has just opened there, John La Farge's Second  Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891. This show, which includes oils and watercolors, is based around eleven sketchbooks, now in Yale's collection, that contain La Farge's pictorial record of his travels to the Pacific.

Fig. 7. The Entrance to the Tautira River, Tahiti. Fisherman Spearing a Fish by La Farge, c. 1895, completed 1909. Oil on canvas, 53 ½ by 60 inches. National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., Adolph Caspar Miller Fund.

When La Farge joined Adams on their voyage to the South Seas, each felt that he needed to escape, at least temporarily, the oppressive circumstances of his life in North America. A few years earlier Adams's wife Clover had committed suicide. La Farge, though highly regarded as a painter, author, and creator of stained-glass windows, had just declared bankruptcy. This was not their first voyage together to the Pacific: in 1886 the two men had spent three months exploring Japan. But this later voyage would last nearly a year and a half and take them to Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Rarotonga, Fiji, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, and finally Sri Lanka.

Unlike the impecunious Gauguin, who lived a rather rugged existence on Tahiti, the two Americans enjoyed every available comfort, thanks to Adams's enviable wealth. La Farge was accompanied by his valet and they hired local cooks along the way. And when they encountered adversities, according to Elizabeth C. Childs, "Adams tried to buy their way out. For example, when Adams had grown bored in Tahiti, he offered large sums of money to try to hire captains to take him to Fiji: when that failed, he actually tried to buy the boats. And when they toured the hills of the Fiji Islands, they did so in the company of between two and four hundred men in the service of their host, British Governor Thurston of Fiji."2

La Farge was well connected, but Adams, a former Harvard University professor, Washington insider, and grandson and great-grandson of presidents, was even better connected. As such, they met with all the powerful and eminent and talented people who were on the islands, including Robert Louis Stevenson and Marau Ta'aroa, who had been queen of Tahiti.

If these two men in their fifties were fleeing from the pressures of life in North America, they traveled more in the interests of novelty and curiosity than of "discovering themselves," as we might say today. They appear to have set forth with all the prevailing attitudes of the day and to have returned home with them fully intact. In an imperialistic age, La Farge was quite happy to declare that "the Pacific is our natural property."3 Adams, worried about the expense of so massive an annexation, was content merely to claim the Sandwich Islands for the stars and stripes. Whereas Gauguin famously and scandalously made free with the local women, the behavior of the two American travelers appears, by all accounts, to have been irreproachable. But that did not mean that they couldn't leer: we may assume that Adams spoke for both when he described the local women as "[g]ood natured, jolly, laughing animals" and "splendid young female savages."4

Thank you for signing up.

[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

» View All