Color in a Higher Key: John La Farge

Editorial Staff Exhibitions

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

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.