John La Farge (1835-1910) was born in New York City to a family of French émigrés who had become very successful in America. La Farge was educated in Jesuit schools, including Fordham and Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland. He studied law, and received a Master’s degree in 1855. The legal profession did not appeal to him, however, and for a twenty-first birthday present, he began his art training with a year in Europe, where he entered the atelier of Thomas Couture. In 1858 he moved to Newport, Rhode Island to study with William Morris Hunt. There he met Henry James and his brother William, who were also studying with Hunt.
In the 1860s, he began a number of religious paintings that were important to his development, though not commercially successful. In 1877, he was asked to provide the decorative scheme of murals and wall colors for Trinity Church in Boston, which was an early marker for the emerging American Renaissance.
John La Farge reinvented the art of stained glass. In the mid-1870s, he began to experiment with stained glass, innovating in the use of opalescent glass. He was awarded patents for his new methods in 1880 and 1883, despite challenges from his rival, Louis Comfort Tiffany. At the International Exposition in Paris in 1889 he was awarded a first-class medal and the ribbon of the Legion of Honor. The jury citation lauded him as: “…the great innovator, the inventor of opaline glass. He has created in all its details an art unknown before, an entirely new industry, and in a country without tradition, he will begin one...” Siegfried Bing, who coined the term Art Nouveau, and was generally a partisan for La Farge’s rival Louis Comfort Tiffany, commended La Farge’s window of Christ in Majesty for Trinity Church: “All marveled at the large stained-glass window, whose astonishing brilliance surpassed, in its magic, anything of its kind created in modern times.” His first stained glass window for Trinity Church was installed in 1883, a depiction of Christ in Majesty on the west façade. This window was the model for the window of Christ Preaching (1889) which is now at Boston College.
La Farge was one of the very first western artists to become interested in the art of Japan, starting in the late 1850s. In 1870 he was the first American to publish a study of Japanese art, a chapter in Raphael Pumpelly’s book Across America and Asia (New York, 1870). He traveled to Japan in 1886 with his friend, Henry Adams. In 1890-91, they visited the South Seas, including Samoa and Tahiti. He published An Artist's Letters from Japan (New York: The Century Co., 1897) and Reminiscences of the South Seas (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1912).
A respected intellectual and author, La Farge lectured at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago; both series of lectures were published. The Met lectures were published as Considerations on painting; lectures given in the year 1893 at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York: Macmillan, 1901). The Chicago lectures were published as The Higher Life in Art: A Series of Lectures on the Barbizon School of France, Inaugurating the Scammon Course at the Art Institute of Chicago (New York: McClure, 1908).
Despite his many achievements, La Farge was not a successful businessman, and his career was marred by several bankruptcies.
John La Farge embodied many of the contradictions and aspirations of his age—a deep respect for tradition juxtaposed with a modernist drive to experiment with materials and to explore space and time, roaming across global cultures and past eras. His restless and probing intellect led him to experiment with artistic styles as diverse as Romanticism, Realism, Revivalism, and Symbolism. He was one of the most interesting examples of the Aesthetic Movement of the late nineteenth century, and his art is a unique bridge between European, Asian, Islamic, and American cultures.