John La Farge’s Second Paradise

The Yale University Art Gallery is showing some works by John La Farge. La Farge was at least partially based in Rhode Island; he was a native New Yorker who owned a home in Newport, and some of his early paintings were landscapes from the area north of Newport called Paradise Valley.

In 1890, La Farge and his friend Henry Adams (the historian and descendant of presidents) took a long voyage to the Pacific, and La Farge painted. Their paths took them to Tahiti, but La Farge’s art isn’t much at all like Gauguin’s. Most of it is in watercolor, and much of it is in understated, slightly pasteled, colors. (It said in the catalog that La Farge and Gauguin missed each other by five days.) Much of it seems quite realistic, too; many of the pictures have people in them, and while some capture ceremonial dances and other such formal occasions, many are of people fishing or just going about their lives. There is motion in just about everything; this guy was great at capturing energy.

Apparently, La Farge and Adams were among the first Americans who visited some of these places just as, uh, tourists: not as investors, missionaries, or conquerors. The notes alluded to La Farge’s attempts to find “pure” Pacific cultures–ones that hadn’t been sullied by too much Westernization. I don’t know if he succeeded in that; probably not. But there is something almost matter-of-fact about many of these paintings. They are not “exotica”.

I’d seen some other of La Farge’s art without knowing it, or, rather, without knowing who he was. He did a lot of stained glass, including four windows for Trinity Church, which I saw during some Back Bay architectural sightseeing a few years ago.

Definitely worth seeing, but hurry; it closes on January 2. Admission is always free, and they’re open until 8:00 on Thursdays. One of the two buildings is closed for remodeling.

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