Friday, November 12, 2010

The Shimmering Still Lifes of LaFarge

Flowers in A Persian Porcelain Water Bowl, 1861

John LaFarge had the kind of restless innovator's talent that drives someone from obsession to obsession.

LaFarge (1835-1910) broke ground in color theory, stained glass (he invented opalescent glass), illustration, printing (he pioneered the huge influence of Japanese silk screens on American artists), criticism, landscape painting (some of his near-abstract sky-scapes look downright postmodern to me - how radical they must have seemed in 1874)...

I don't think anyone has done the scholarship needed to catalogue and make available the extent of the work of this multi-talented and very influential figure. But it's clear that he surrendered to his own individualistic muse, seizing upon things he loved in various media and synthesizing them into new forms.

LaFarge's Flowers in Flowers in A Persian Porcelain Water Bowl is unusual for its delicate overall tonal color effect - it's like we're viewing the whole scene through an opalescent, diaphanous gauze.

Boston's Gardner Museum has a landscape (a snowy New England barn roof jutting up under a high, cerulean sky) by LaFarge but they don't allow photographs, and sadly the work isn't included in their "masterpieces of the collection" catalogue. So we'll have to content ourselves for now with this gorgeous still life and this part-random spray of petals, leaves, and blossoms that goes by the name Apple Blossoms.

Apple Blossoms, oil on wood, 1878

Apple Blossoms shows the synthesis of Japanese printmaking and North American subject matter. It lives by virtue of its shallow yet lively semi-abstraction.

This painting's flattened patterning of background petals, leaves, lights, and shadows, forms a variegated skein of color and texture over which LaFarge floats the pink and white flowers presumably still on the branch. Rather like Matisse (b. 1869) would later, LaFarge here successfully poises the painting halfway between naturalistic representation and decorative abstraction.

Hats off to an American innovator who rightly followed his muse across the boundary lines and who I'm sure one day will be far better known than he is now.

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