John La Farge (1835-1910)
The Gail and John Liebes Collection
John La Farge (1835-1910)


John La Farge (1835-1910)
encaustic on panel
34 1/8 x 15 5/8 in. (86.7 x 39.7 cm.)
Painted in 1863.
The artist.
Sale: Messrs. Peirce & Company, Boston, Massachusetts, The Paintings of Mr. John La Farge, to be Sold at Auction, 20 November 1878, lot 10.
John Chandler Bancroft, Boston, Massachusetts, acquired from the above.
Mrs. R.L. Adlercron, Grantham, England, daughter of the above, 1901.
Mrs. Christopher Blackie, Lincolnshire, England, daughter of the above, 1939.
Sotheby's, New York, 8 December 1983, lot 191, sold by the above.
The Jordan-Volpe Gallery, New York.
Acquired by the late owners from the above, 1984.
"New Pictures at Williams & Everett's," Boston Evening Transcript, February 9, 1864, p. 1.
"Fresh Art in Boston," Boston Evening Transcript, February 18, 1864, p. 1.
"Art Notes," New York Evening Post, September 19, 1872, p. 1.
F.A. Walker, ed., International Exposition, 1876: Reports and Awards Group XXVII, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 1877, p. 30.
"Fine Arts: The Society of American Artists," New York Evening Mail, March 5, 1878, p. 4.
"Old and Young Painters," New York Times, March 17, 1878, p. 5.
"The Society of American Artists," The World, March 30, 1878, p. 5.
"Art and Artists," Boston Evening Transcript, November 21, 1878, p. 6.
"Sale of Mr. La Farge's Paintings," Boston Daily Advertiser, November 21, 1878, p. 2.
"The La Farge Collection," The Boston Globe, November 21, 1878, p. 4.
"The La Farge Paintings," Boston Post, November 22, 1878, p. 3.
C.E. Clement, L. Hutton, Artists of the Nineteenth Century and Their Works, Boston, Massachusetts, 1879, p. 30.
H. La Farge, Catalogue Raisonné of the Works of John La Farge, unpublished manuscript, 1934-74, p. 36.
K.A. Foster, “The Still-Life Painting of John La Farge,” The American Art Journal, vol. XI, no. 3, July 1979, p. 32.
H.A. La Farge, “John La Farge and the 1878 Auction of His Works,” The American Art Journal, vol. XV, no. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 13, 16, fig. 11, illustrated.
H. Adams, "Picture Windows," Art and Antiques, vol. 3, April 1984, p. 96, illustrated.
H. Adams, "The Mind of John La Farge," John La Farge, New York, 1987, p. 22, illustrated.
J.L. Yarnall, John La Farge: Watercolors and Drawings, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1990, pp. 36, 106, no. 2, illustrated.
J.L. Yarnall, John La Farge in Paradise: The Painter and His Muse, exhibition catalogue, New York, 1995, pp. 46, 47, 133, 155, fig. 74, illustrated.
"The Still Lifes of John La Farge at Jordan-Volpe Gallery April 28," Antiques and the Arts Weekly, April 21, 1995, p. 86, illustrated.
G. Glueck, "Gallery Watch," New York Observer, vol. 9, May 15, 1995, p. 19.
B. Gopnik, “Here and Now,” The Washington Post, July 1, 2007, p. N2.
E. Hodermarsky, et al., John La Farges Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891, exhibition catalogue, New Haven, Connecticut, 2010, pp. 18-19, fig. 17, illustrated.
K. Pyne, Art and the Higher Life: Painting and Evolutionary Thought in Late Nineteenth-Century America, Austin, Texas, 1996, n.p., pl. 1, fig. 2.1, illustrated.
J.L. Yarnall, John La Farge: A Biographical and Critical Study, Surrey, England, 2012, pp. viii, 63-64, no. 3.8, illustrated.
New York, National Academy of Design, 38th Annual Exhibition, April 14-June 24, 1863, no. 78.
Boston, Massachusetts, Williams and Everett Gallery, February 1864.
Brooklyn, New York, Brooklyn Art Association, Fall Exhibition, December 7-11, 1869, no. 260.
New Haven, Connecticut, Yale School of the Fine Arts, Third Annual Exhibition, 1871, no. 65.
Paris, France, Cercle des Arts, 1872.
London, Royal Academy, Annual Exhibition, 1872, no. 230.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Fairmount Park, Centennial Commission International Exhibition, 1876, no. 167.
New York, Society of American Artists, First Exhibition, March 6-April 5, 1878, no. 97.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Institute, Works of John La Farge, March 27-April 10, 1901, p. 8, no. 89.
New York, The Jordan-Volpe Gallery, Les Amis: American Painters in France, 1865 to 1890, May 1984, no. 20.
Washington, D.C., National Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Institution; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Carnegie Museum of Art; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, John La Farge, July 10, 1987-April 24, 1988, pp. 22, 257, no. 8, fig. 7, illustrated.
New York, The Jordan-Volpe Gallery, Nature Vivante: The Still Lifes of John La Farge, April 28-June 9, 1995, pp. 30-31, 54, 76, 118, 144, no. 13, pl. 11, illustrated.
New York, Vance Jordan Fine Art, Inc., Poetic Painting: American Masterworks from the Clark and Liebes Collections, October 29-December 7, 2001, pp. 4, 7, 17, 29-30, pl. 4, illustrated.
Washington, D.C., Smithsonian American Art Museum, Variations on America: Masterworks from American Art Forum Collections, April 13-July 29, 2007, pp. 52-54, illustrated.

Lot Essay

Long considered one of America's most complex and innovative artists, John La Farge worked in a variety of mediums to produce successes in a multitude of styles, among them his ambitious, early efforts in still-life painting. Freely disclosing the hand of the artist, and often brilliantly colored, these works present flattened forms with an emphasis on the ethereal qualities of the object and its surroundings. Henry Adams writes of such works, “La Farge avoided obvious formulas, choosing modest motifs and unusual vantage points and composing his painting from color and light rather than outlines.” ("The Mind of John La Farge," John La Farge, Washington, D.C., 1987, p. 25) Painted in 1863, Hollyhocks stands as one of the artist's most elaborate nature-in-nature compositions and reveals a forward-looking approach while also incorporating a range of art historical techniques, notably from Japanese art and the Pre-Raphaelites.

La Farge’s fascination with art began at a young age and was reinforced at the age of 21 with an 1856 trip to Europe where he frequented museums and salons, often copying the work of European masters, and briefly studied with Thomas Couture. In the fall of 1857 this cultural immersion was cut short when La Farge’s father John Frederick, a staunch opponent to his son’s artistic inclinations, fell ill. Six months later, John Frederick passed away. La Farge received a significant inheritance and promptly tossed aside business endeavors and embraced his long-standing desire to become an artist.

Soon thereafter, La Farge was introduced to William Morris Hunt, a former pupil of Thomas Couture and a devotee of French art, who was setting up a studio in Newport, Rhode Island, where he would teach painting. Only Hunt’s second pupil, La Farge arrived in the spring of 1859. After quickly mastering his mentor’s oil techniques, La Farge grew frustrated and sought a new direction with a specific focus on light and color, writing, “There [in the open air] I wished to apply principles of light and color of which I had learned little. I wished my studies from nature to indicate something of this, to be free from recipes, as far as possible, and to indicate very carefully, in every part, the exact time of day and circumstances of light. This of course is the most ambitious of all possible ideas, and though attempted to some extent through several centuries from time to time it is only recently that all the problems have been stated, in intention at least, by modern painters.” (as quoted in J. Yarnall, John La Farge In Paradise: The Painter and His Muse, Newport, Rhode Island, 1995, p. 22)

No location proved more influential during these years than the rural town of Middleton, Rhode Island, located one mile from Newport, and the unique topography of a square mile tract known as Paradise. James Yarnall writes, “Paradise is crossed from north to south by a series of seven puddingstone ridges…These ridges run like fingers toward the sea, often submerged beneath land, but at times rising into miniature mountains called the Paradise Hills or Paradise Rocks.” (John La Farge In Paradise: The Painter and His Muse, p. 4) By 1861, La Farge and his wife Margaret began renting a house at Paradise and, despite recently purchasing an ample home in the heart of Newport, were soon visiting the area with great regularity. Absorbed by the sweeping views to the ocean, La Farge was also drawn to Nelson’s Pond and the intimate oak-hickory forest set at the base of one of the looming puddingstone ridges. “Hollyhocks seeds must have been carried by birds into the woods from gardens of the J. Nelson house on the puddingstone ledge above…La Farge dubbed this the ‘Sacred Grove’ after the glen where the classical poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.) supposedly derived inspiration for writing…” (John La Farge In Paradise: The Painter and His Muse, pp. 33, 47)

La Farge’s exploration of Paradise and the “Sacred Grove” resulted in a range of still-life paintings but none more dramatic than his nature-in-nature compositions of hollyhocks. Hollyhocks and Red Hollyhocks (Private collection) were both produced in 1863 while Hollyhocks (Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas) was painted circa 1864-65 and Hollyhocks and Corn (Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts) and was completed in 1865. The four works were executed in encaustic, a mix of oil and wax, and mark La Farge’s earliest use of the medium. In the years that followed this series, La Farge largely limited his use of encaustic to decorative works; however, hollyhocks continued to appear in his watercolors and his stained glass windows.

In Hollyhocks, La Farge’s free manner of painting and his subtle evocation of color and light imbue the work with an overwhelming sense of beauty and fragility. The flowers, varying in red and white, and set against a contrasting green, yellow and brown background, spiral towards the faint traces of blue sky revealed at the top of the composition. While the direct manner of painting anticipates later artist developments, the vertical, asymmetrical arrangement reflects Japanese influences and the color harmony and overall mood recall the Pre-Raphaelites. Recognizing the merits of the picture, La Farge submitted it to the Royal Academy in 1872. Yarnall notes, “La Farge also exhibited the picture widely both before and after the London showing: the National Academy of Design in 1863 (no. 78); the Brooklyn Art Association in 1869 (no. 260); the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 (no. 167); and the Society of American Artists in 1878 (no. 97). John Chandler Bancroft purchased Hollyhocks at La Farge’s one-man auction held in 1878 at Pierce and Company in Boston…” (Nature Vivante: The Still Lifes of John La Farge, New York, 1995, p. 118).

Hollyhocks is at once a forward-looking composition and an adaptation of historical techniques, which the artist masterfully presents with his unique artistic voice. Acknowledging La Farge’s unprecedented influence and imagination, Henry Adams writes, “Although not trained in France, La Farge alone of nineteenth-century painters in America made contributions that are comparable to progressive French developments…Indeed, La Farge’s advances often preceded their closest European counterparts. He was collecting Japanese prints before Félix Bracquemond and Whistler, making plein-air landscapes before the first French Impressionist exhibition, and painting in Tahiti a year before Gauguin…Brilliant, uneven, intellectually challenging, La Farge had one of the greatest creative minds in nineteenth century American art.” (John La Farge, p. 71)

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