You just might be living near a John La Farge window if you live in Rhode Island or Massachusetts, and in any other New England state you might at least find a painting.
Who’s John La Farge, you might ask?
Born March 31, 1835 to French emigres in New York City, he graduated from Mount St. Mary’s College in Maryland. He then went to Newport to study with William Morris Hunt. There he met and married Margaret Perry, a descendant of Benjamin Franklin and granddaughter of Oliver Hazard Perry. He bought a house in Newport, though his travels, business and mistress kept him away from it half the time.
His friend H.H. Richardson commissioned him to paint murals at Trinity Church, but his easel paintings didn’t sell enough to pay the bills. He began to experiment with stained glass. He won his first commission for a window from friends at Harvard, who wanted a stained glass window to remember the Civil War Dead at Memorial Hall.
Stained glass making was in a sorry state, and La Farge labored to create the same effects of medieval cathedral windows. He layered complementary colors of colored glass, and later worked with opalescent glass—glass with a milky opaque or translucent effect. He even used mottled glass that others might reject as flawed. La Farge began to work directly with a glassmaker to get saturated but subtle colors.
His connections with wealthy homeowners won him several commissions for stained glass windows. He drew from wildly different artistic styles: early Venetian, Buddhist, Islamic, Greek or Roman art. His windows created an exotic, opulent effect, just what Gilded Age millionaires wanted.
His friend Henry Adams, wrote “La Farge alone could use glass like a thirteenth-century artist…
In conversation La Farge’s mind was opaline with infinite shades and refractions of light, and with color toned down to the finest gradations. In glass it was insubordinate; it was renaissance; it asserted his personal force with depth and vehemence of tone never before seen. He seemed bent on crushing rivalry.
(Read about his rivalry with Louis Comfort Tiffany here.)
You can see for yourself what Adams meant in many New England cities and towns where La Farge’s work is on display.
Bridgeport: New Britain Museum of American Art, oil on panel, Lady of Shallot
Hartford: Wadsworth Athenaeum, water color, Water Lily and Moth
New Haven: Yale University Art Gallery, windows from the Resurrection Promise Church
Brunswick: Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Athens (stained glass window); Tokio Geisha Dancing in the House of Our Neighbor, Nikko, gouache; Meditation of Kuwannon, watercolor.
Rockland: Farnsworth Art Museum–Japanese Fisherman, Study of Sunlight,
Waterville: Colby College Museum of Art– Agathon to Erosanthe (Votive Wreath)
Boston: The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has a watercolor, painting and drawing collection and the stained glass windows, Morning Glories, Peonies Blown in the Wind
(West Roxbury): Emmanuel Episcopal Church, The Angel Holding a Lyre (or The Harpist)
(Jamaica Plain): St. John’s Episcopal Church Decorative Window
Cambridge: Memorial Hall, Harvard University, Athena Tying a Mourning Fillet, Battle Window, Cornelia – Mother of the Gracchi, Virgil and Homer, several paintings, Fish and Dawn in the Harvard University Art Museum
Manchester-by-the-Sea: Emmanuel Church, memorial stained glass window
Medford: Grace Episcopal Church, Rebecca at the Well
Methuen: First Church, Congregational, The Resurrection (Colonel Henry Coffin Nevins Memorial Window)
Newton: Grace Church, Memorial Window for Lizzie Shinn
North Easton: Unity Church, Figures of Wisdom The Angel of Help – Helen Angier Ames Memorial Window
Salem: First Church, Faith and Charity
Springfield: George Walter Vincent Smith Museum, Rebecca at the Well
Wellesley: Wellesley College, Houghton Chapel—Memorial windows
Whitman: All Saints’ Episcopal Church
Williamstown: Thompson Memorial Chapel, Williams College, Abraham and an Angel
Manchester: Currier Museum of Art– Sunrise in Fog over Kyoto, watercolor
Lincoln: Christ Church
Newport: The Breakers, skylight
Channing Memorial Church, Christ Leading the Soul Through the Valley of the Shadow of Death
Newport Art Museum: Trompe l’Oeil Curtain
Newport Congregational Church: Ceiling Paintings
Providence: Cathedral Church of St. John, The Wise Virgin
Providence: Church of the Blessed Sacrament, Angel of the Adoration
With thanks to Stained Glass in New England: A Digital Guide; and Art of an Opaline Mind: The Stained Glass of John La Farge by Julie Sloan and James Yarnall. This story was updated in 2021.