Color in a Higher Key: John La Farge


Fig. 4. Girls carrying a canoe. Vaiala in Samoa. 1891. Portraits of Otaota, daughter of the preacher and our next neighbor Siakumu. The first girl is Faafi by La Farge. Signed and dated "La Farge 1891" at lower left and inscribed "Samoa-girls with canoe" at lower right. Watercolor and gouache over graphite on paper, 17 ¾ by 21 ⅞ inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, purchase, Mrs. Arthur Hays Sulzberger gift, in memory of Arthur Hays Sulzberger.

At the same time, we must not form an overly romantic notion of the South Pacific as it was in 1891, or even as it is more than a century later. It may come as something of a surprise that, even then, men like Adams and La Farge were acutely aware that the pristine paradise of Captain Cook, Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, and the young Herman Melville had vanished. But La Farge, scarcely interested in political commentary, was happy to work around that inconvenient fact. As Childs points out, he made no images "of the American business center in Honolulu, the gas lights and curio stores of Papeete,...the European-style lodgings in the American consulate in Samoa, or the motor launches of his British host in Fiji."5 Instead he offered up, in his sketchbooks and paintings, a romanticized paradise untouched by the encroachment of Western nations. An amateur ethnologist, he undertook, in watercolors like Girl sliding down water fall (Fig. 8) and Girls carrying a canoe (Fig. 4), to depict the immemorial cycles of daily life among the native populations of Polynesia.

In assessing the ultimate artistic consequence of La Farge's work in the South Seas, we must try to dispel the inevitable comparisons with Gauguin. To state the simple truth of the matter, Gauguin was the far greater artist and his work in Polynesia was a massive lurch forward in Western art's violent severance with its own past (see Fig. 1). Quite aside from the stunning and new beauty that Gauguin unleashed upon the world, before and after his arrival in Tahiti, he was the first to seek and find in primitive cultures, not only an exotic interlude but also a new avenue for the very forms of visual expression in the West.

La Farge, in marked contrast, incarnates the traditions against which Gauguin rebelled. He assimilates all he surveys to the inveterate habits of vision that he learned as a student in Paris and New York. This, in a word, is the realist tradition of Orientalists like Jean-Léon Gérôme and Eugène Fromentin, as well as of James Tissot, whose several hundred watercolor illustrations of the Life of Christ were the subject of a recent show at the Brooklyn Museum. Heavily positivistic, this perspective sees art as a means of recording objective reality with as little ostensible commentary as possible. As regards depictions of the exotic and the ancient, it strives to conjure the Western observer into believing that he is in some sense present. The works in the Yale exhibition that most fully exemplify this ambition are those watercolors, already described, in which La Farge depicts the daily life of the natives. As with Tissot's depictions of Christ's passion La Farge errs in seeking from the fragile, allusive medium of watercolors the sort of journalistic robustness for which oils are the perfect medium. But one suspects that even in that latter medium, these staged and over-laden images would not have proved wholly satisfactory.

The best works that resulted from La Farge's voyage to the South Pacific were his landscapes, paintings in which the exotic scenery was the point, rather than merely the backdrop for the human figures that he produced with workmanlike competence but little inspiration or anatomical flair.

The success of these images may have come as something of a surprise, not least to La Farge himself, who was not mainly viewed as a landscape painter. As the contemporary art critic Russell Sturgis wrote, although La Farge "has produced a great deal of landscape...he is not generally considered as a landscape painter."6 In the same article the critic made the point that "Landscape painting is unquestionably the art of our epoch, the one branch of the art of painting which this century has excelled in." But by the end of the century, the American landscape, at least, had long been in a kind of crisis. The century had begun with the Hudson River school, which reveled in the beauties of the natural landscape of North America. Slightly past mid-century, however, such scenes had played themselves out, and artists like Frederic Edwin Church headed to the Amazon and the Holy Land in search of new vistas. But by the 1890s, those too had come to seem slightly platitudinous, which is in part why La Farge traveled to the South Seas.

Consider two paintings that he made in the years after his return from Tahiti. Both images are based on photographs by Charles Georges Spitz (1857-1894) that La Farge had purchased before leaving the island. Both portray mountain scenery with water in the foreground, ostensibly the entrance to the Tautira River in Tahiti. The earlier image (Fig. 6), from 1893, depicts a wisp of cloud rising over the mountain in the center of the composition, with two young men, semi-naked, posed diminutively at the bottom left. An array of blues makes up the cool palette of this charming, if conventional painting.

In the other depiction, however, begun two years later, a rosy vespertinal light suffuses everything (Fig. 7). This time a single figure, almost an afterthought, spears a fish in the center of the scene. In stark contrast to the acute realism of the ethnological images that La Farge made while on the island, an almost dreamlike, even symbolist indeterminacy graces this painting. Though La Farge would have been scandalized by the very suggestion, this painting is worthy to stand comparison, both in tone and in chromatic daring, with some of the latest and best works of Paul Gauguin.

John La Farge's Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891
is on view at the Yale University Art Gallery until January 2, 2011, and will be shown at the Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts, from January 22 to March 27, 2011.


 
1 Quoted in Elizabeth C. Childs, "Common Ground: John La Farge and Paul Gauguin in Tahiti," in Elisabeth Hodermarksy et al., John La Farge's Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891 (Yale University Press, New Haven, 2010), p. 132.  2 Elizabeth C. Childs, "Exoticisms in the South Seas: John La Farge and Henry Adams Encounter the Pacific," ibid., p. 65.  3 Quoted ibid, p. 53.  4 Quoted in Childs, "Common Ground," p. 128.  5 Childs, "Exoticisms in the South Seas," pp. 65, 67.  6 Quoted in Elisabeth Hodermarsky, "A Second Paradise: John La Farge's Search for the Sublime in the Twilight of the American Landscape Movement," in Hodermarsky et al., John La Farge's Second Paradise, p. 3.

 

 

 

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

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