John La Farge was the eldest child in a family of urbane, affluent French immigrants who had earlier settled in New York City. He was born in 1835, and his education was thorough, with attention to literature, French, and Roman Catholicism. He received drawing lessons from his grandfather and training in watercolor technique from an unknown English artist. Initially, though, he saw his artistic practice only as an avocation, a diversion during his teenage years at Mount Saint Mary's College in Maryland and Saint John's College in New York. Afterwards, he studied law in New York City, while experimenting with oil painting.
By 1856, however, La Farge had left for Paris, where his family connections helped to secure his introduction to that city's elite literary and artistic circles. Indeed, his later career would be marked by its preoccupation with sometimes esoteric intellectual and aesthetic matters. While abroad, he traveled in northern Europe, copied the Old Masters, and spent a few weeks in the studio of Thomas Couture. The illness of his father, however, necessitated his return to the United States. After briefly taking up the study of law again in 1857, he rented a studio (which he maintained for the rest of his career) in New York's Tenth Street studio building, where he met the building's architect Richard Morris Hunt. This was the likely impetus for La Farge's decision in 1859 to travel to Newport, Rhode Island, and study painting with the architect's brother, William Morris Hunt.
La Farge married Margaret Perry in 1860, and for most of the rest of his career, his family life was centered in Rhode Island. In this seminal period of the late 1860s he cultivated an interest in Japanese art and explored a highly personal style of still-life and plein-air landscape painting. His wide interests eventually led him to innovations in other media as well. By 1875, for example, he was working in stained glass, and a year later, he directed the decorative program for Trinity Church, Boston, designed by architect H.H. Richardson. La Farge became a leader in the mural movement, and his commissions for churches, government buildings, and opulent private homes were a welcome source of income in later years. This work usually kept him in Boston or New York, however, separated from his family. As an easel painter, he was associated with the Society of American Artists, the organization of younger, progressive painters opposed to the National Academy of Design. La Farge, though, was also a member of the Academy, and he was extremely concerned with exhibiting his work widely, not just in New York, but across the country.
An inveterate traveler, La Farge made several trips to Europe and two highly publicized Pacific voyages--to Japan in 1886 and to the South Sea Islands in 1890-1891--with his close friend, Henry Adams. He documented his trips with extensive series of watercolors and with a succession of articles and books. Nearly always in need of money to pay the many employees required for his glass and mural projects, he found that his writing helped cover these mounting bills. He was also known as a lecturer on art matters, although this great variety of activities became increasingly taxing in his final years. He continued to take on large commissions, however, even as his fragile health and fiscal insolvency became critical. He died in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1910. [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published, or to be published, in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
Cortissoz, Royal. John La Farge: A Memoir and a Study. Boston, 1911.
Weinberg, H. Barbara. The Decorative Work of John La Farge. New York, 1977.
John La Farge. Exh. cat. National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C.; Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. New York, 1987.
Kelly, Franklin, with Nicolai Cikovsky, Jr., Deborah Chotner, and John Davis. American Paintings of the Nineteenth Century, Part I. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 1996: 398.