John La Farge

born New York City 1835-died Providence, RI 1910
Media - J0001833_1b.jpg - 89300
John La Farge, © Peter A. Juley & Son Collection, Smithsonian American Art Museum J0001833
Also known as
  • John Lewis Frederick Joseph La Farge
New York, New York, United States
Providence, Rhode Island, United States
Active in
  • Newport, Rhode Island, United States
  • Middletown, Paradise, Rhode Island, United States

Painter, stained glass designer. Among his many commissions, decoration of the Trinity Church in Boston placed La Farge at the forefront of the American Arts and Crafts movement. He early admired the formality and patterning of Japanese art, and he recored his impressions of his travels in Asia in An Artist's Letters from Japan (1897).

Joan Stahl American Artists in Photographic Portraits from the Peter A. Juley & Son Collection (Washington, D.C. and Mineola, New York: National Museum of American Art and Dover Publications, Inc., 1995)

Artist Biography

John LaFarge was born in New York City, the son of prosperous French emigres, his father having been a refugee from the ill-fated Napoleonic expedition to San Domingo. LaFarge began drawing at an early age, had intermittent instruction, and graduated from the Roman Catholic Mount St. Mary's College in Maryland. In 1856 he went to Europe, worked briefly under the painter Thomas Couture in Paris, and traveled in northern Europe. Returning to the United States, he went to Newport in order to study with William Morris Hunt. There he met William and Henry James (William James was then also a student of Hunt's).

LaFarge was one of the first American artists to import and be influenced by Japanese color prints (1863). He made a trip to Japan with Henry Adams in 1886, later publishing An Artist's Letters from Japan (1897).

In 1876 LaFarge completed a whole complex of mural decorations for Richardson's distinguished Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston; it was his first large-scale commission. H. H. Richardson won the architectural competition for the New Trinity; he and LaFarge had been friends for some time. LaFarge wrote of Trinity, "I was able to propose to Richardson to change entirely the character of his building. … I brought him photographs of the Spanish Romanesque churches, Avila and so forth. … It was thus that I came to decorate Trinity Church, Boston, which was being built by my friend Richardson, who believed in me without having much proof of what I could do in that way."

LaFarge worked out a technique for creating opalescent glass, and had many commissions from churches and private patrons for stained glass windows. Some of the important commissions were for windows at Trinity Church, Boston; Memorial Hall at Harvard; the Church of the Incarnation and the Paulist Church, New York City. But alongside these commissions, LaFarge continued to paint and accept mural commissions. Perhaps the best known of the latter is the great apse mural of the Ascension of Christ in the Church of the Ascension in New York City, completed in 1887.

By birth, upbringing and style of life, John LaFarge was a cosmopolite. The evidence of his own contemporaries is that he exercised a considerable personal magnetism. Elihu Vedder, who was only a year younger than LaFarge as one of the few whose approval he valued. Vedder admired in LaFarge's paintings "his striving to express shades of thought so delicate that they seem to render words almost useless."

Jane Dillenberger and Joshua C. Taylor The Hand and the Spirit: Religious Art in America 1700–1900 (Berkeley, Cal.: University Art Museum, 1972)


Media - 1929.6.70 - SAAM-1929.6.70_1 - 52029
Graphic Masters I: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum
November 21, 2008May 24, 2009
Graphic Masters I: Highlights from the Smithsonian American Art Museum is the first in a series of special installations that celebrate the extraordinary variety and accomplishment of American artists' works on paper.
A painting of a woman sitting down and reading 'Le Figaro'
Special Installation of Nineteen American Masterworks
April 17, 2015August 16, 2015
Integrated within the chronological flow of the museum’s permanent collection, these masterworks from Gilded Age, Impressionist, and Ashcan School painters will help to tell the story of the late 19th century and early 20th centuries in America, a “coming