John LaFarge’s Second Paradise

The Addison Gallery’s new exhibition, John La Farge’s Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891, invites visitors to enjoy the tropics through the paintings and sketches of American artist John La Farge. On view through March, the exhibition traces the fifteen month voyage of La Farge and his friend, well-renowned historian Henry Adams, through the islands of the South Pacific. Through ephemeral watercolor sketches and polished oil paintings, La Farge aimed to capture the vestiges of a paradise untainted by modernization. A map in one gallery orients the viewer among the islands of Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Rarotonga, Fiji, Australia, Java, Singapore and Ceylon. Galleries from Hawaii and Samoa depict the native people of the islands and scenes from daily life, including the Siva Dance, a Samoan ritual, among other activities in motion. In contrast, the gallery on Tahiti mainly consists of the paintings of landscapes. The curator of the exhibition, Lisa Hodermarsky, Sutphin Family Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery, toured visitors through the exhibition in a Gallery Talk on Sunday, January 23rd. She said, “La Farge didn’t go to [the island] to paint the westernized port town of the South Pacific, but he wanted to paint a more authentic theme – that’s why he focused on painting landscapes, which remained purely unadulterated.” Brian Allen, Director of the Addison Gallery, opened the Gallery Talk with a brief introduction to provide the audience with background information on La Farge and to explain the importance of having the exhibition at Addison. “People think of La Farge as an artist who work in medium of stained glass, particularly in Boston because of La Farge’s glass windows at the Trinity Church, but they don’t think of him as a great painter,” said Allen. “This particular exhibition gives people a new way to access La Farge and to think of La Farge.” Yale University Art Gallery curated the exhibition and displayed it from October to January. Upon arrival at the Addison, the works took on a new identity in the museum’s unique architecture. Yale University Art Gallery featured the paintings in a large, modern room, but the Addison arranged the works in smaller rooms, which provides a more intimate viewing experience. Hodermarsky unfolded journey that La Farge and Adams embarked on more than hundred years ago in August of 1890, providing insight behind La Farge’s stories. She read out the quotes from La Farge’s memoir and other texts that related to each painting. Because La Farge hastily captured moments during his travels, he often named his paintings “sketches” even some that appeared to be finished artworks. La Farge painted mainly in watercolors, which gave the work a soft, momentary quality. Inscriptions and notes, scrawled along the bottoms of his paintings, detailed the identity of a sitter or the events of a day. La Farge either executed his paintings and sketches on site or upon his return to his home studio in New York. He painted at his studio with huge reliance on the notes he recorded in sketchbooks, twelve of which are on view alongside the finished paintings. Books present a difficulty to curators because only one page can be displayed at a time, but a touch-screen kiosk in one gallery allows visitors to browse all the pages of the sketchbooks. One prominent painting, “The entrance to Tautira River, Tahiti. Fisherman Spearing a Fish,” was completed by La Farge in his studio sometime between 1895 and 1909. La Farge based the painting on sketches from Tahiti as well as a photograph of the Tahiti River area that was taken by Charles Georges Spitz. The Addison-owned oil painting, “Sketch of Maua, Apia. One of our boat crew” (1891) prominently occupies one wall in an ornate gold frame. It is one of the largest and most finished oil portraits that La Farge painted on site in the South Seas. Often featured in exhibitions of the Addison’s permanent collection, the piece now has proper context amidst other island scenes. A paragraph inscribed in a corner of the painting notes that Maua lacks tattoos, though most men would have gotten extensive tattoos on their legs according to common local custom. La Farge wrote, “Maua is not tattooed (so that his legs are not bluish, looking as if silk (blue-black) drawers were worn). He ought to be tattooed, but I think is afraid of the pain.” The titles of La Farge’s paintings, Hodermarsky said, are original compared to the traditional western “Article-Adjective-Noun” titles. They describe the identity or location of the subject in long phrases with many lower case letters. The paintings’ paradisiacal mood makes the exhibition’s title, “John La Farge’s Second Paradise” appropriate. Hodermarsky explained that “Second Paradise” has both literal and figurative meanings, because La Farge’s “first paradise” was the strip of land located between Newport and Middletown in Rhode Island called the Paradise Valley, where he painted landscapes during his earlier years. Hodermarsky wrapped up the Gallery Talk with a “marvelous quote” by La Farge from his lecture in 1893: “Art can give you a language, a speaker, and the impressions that we receive and the manners through which we render them are in fact so subtle that no one has been yet able to analyze more than a certain exterior or part of the mechanism of plantation and representation.” Hodermarsky said, “[La Farge meant] natural beauty is very pleasing, very personal, and very difficult to capture in either picture or words, but when you put words together with the picture, when you put Adams’ works and La Farge’s paintings together, you do end up getting more of the experience.” Through this exhibition, Allison Kemmerer, the Curator of Photography and Art after 1950 at Addison said the Andover community can view the Addison’s own painting of Maua among other paintings from the same artist and time period. She added that it will allow PA students to learn more about the area where La Farge’s paintings come from in the specific time period. As Brian Allen noted prior to the Gallery Talk, “On this cold day, La Farge refers to the South Seas and it will warm people up.”