John La Farge is often referred to as one of the most "innovative and versatile American artists of the nineteenth century" and "the most versatile American artist of his time," a true Renaissance spirit that was not afraid to experiment in different areas of paintings and with different techniques. One look at works such as "The Great Statue of Amida Buddha at Kamakura, Known as the Daibutsu, from the Priest's Garden," painted during his trip to Japan, will gives us the impression of a personality that transcended boundaries, approached new cultures and civilizations and remained an icon for art in the 19th century.
Born in New York City, in 1835, John La Farge studied with William Morris Hunter at the beginning of his career as a painter. In 1856, he benefited from a trip to France, where he familiarized himself with the most notable artists in art history. Visiting the Louvre, John La Farge began to draw reproductions of renowned painters and to study modern color theories
The Japanese culture and art began to influence him in the late 1850s and 1860s, as he married Margaret Perry, niece of the Commodore who had opened Japan to Western civilization and trade. By the time he married her in 1860, he had already begun collecting Japanese art, including prints and watercolors.
As a revolutionary artist, he began to include Japanese artistic ideas in his own works, which may have led to a certain confusion by Western standards of the time. Nevertheless, he made use of Japanese ideas in his work and attempted to make Japanese art and style known to the Western world with his essay on Japanese art, written in 1869. In his essay, John La Farge's describes many of the traditional perspectives of Japanese art, including "the asymmetrical compositions, high horizons, and clear, heightened color of Japanese prints"
. Later on, he would be able to see for himself the characteristics of Japanese painting and relate to it with his "An Artist's Letters from Japan," written in 1897 on the occasion of his trip to Japan.
The 1870s and 1880s also brought about the first decorative projects in La Farge's career, which was also equivalent to his adoption of the old European masters style. The Trinity Church in Boston was his first major project in this sense, but these decades abounded in decorative projects for rich American industrialists, including churches and residences.
In the summer of 1886, he spent three months with his friend Henry Adams in Japan, visiting Japanese sites and assimilating characteristics of Japanese art and culture. As we have previously seen, he was no stranger of Japanese art, as the first theoretician of the Western world to write an essay on Japanese art specificity. During his trip, he was able to study and analyze his influences much closer, especially in terms of decorative art and nature representation
At the point that John La Farge was visiting Japan, the period known as the Meiji period was already well on the way. Considered in history as one of the most rapid modernization processes ever accounted for, the Meiji period started in 1868, with the accession to the throne of the Meiji emperor. The Meiji period would last until 1912, in a 45-year reign that would bring Japan among the world powers.
The Meiji restoration ended the 265-year-old Tokugawa shogunate, a period similar to the Middle Ages in Europe. Organized in a feudal manner and strictly hierarchical, the shogunate closed Japan to foreigners and foreign powers and initiated a politics of complete isolation. By the time John La Farge would be visiting Japan, the consequences of these policies were still being significantly felt. In art, for example, the effects were quite positive.
Indeed, by the time he arrived to Japan, he would discover an artistically pure Japan, free of all foreign influences, with no trace of European masters or classics. Everything he discovered here would be culturally and artistically pure, because the 18-years of Meiji rule and change would have probably been not enough to introduce significant changes in art. Change in art was not necessarily a priority for the Meiji rule, a rule that targeted mostly economical and military objectives.
One of the most interesting discoveries that La Farge made in Japan was related to the way Japanese managed to include in their art the mix between religion and nature. John La Farge wanted to discover how the relationship between the two manifested itself both at individual levels and artistic ones. Nirvana was only part of the idea, with most of the Japanese belonging to Shinto rather than to Buddhist beliefs.
On the other hand, coming from a Christian dimension, John La Farge would discover a completely new relationship between nature and religion. In Christianity, the church, as a central figure and symbol, is somewhat inextricably related to the town or village and to the community it represents. Indeed, looking at medieval towns that have still retained the original structure nowadays (the best examples are in Italy or France, countries which La Farge would have previously visited), the church is always in the middle of the town, bearing a symbolical, but also functional explanation.
On the other hand, in Japanese culture and religious art is often located in remote natural areas, in the middle of the exotic environment. Take the Tokugawa mausoleums of the shoguns Ieyasu and Iemitsu, where the funerary monuments are simply in the nature. John La Farge was keen to underline these differences between the two different religious perceptions.
On the other hand, John La Farge also speculated one of the main differences between Western artistic representations and Eastern ones, notably Japanese art. According to him, "the modern West (probably used in the sense of from the Renaissance onwards) strives to attain truthfulness and objectivity through a cycle of repeated progress and failure, and makes use of models because it values realism"
. Analyzing this and thinking of European paintings from the 15th century onwards, with few exceptions, Western art is a representation of the proximate surroundings. Religious paintings themselves follow the same pattern: the Virgin Mary is quite often painted having as model one of the notable female personalities of the village or town. The same goes for most of the other participants in the paintings.
On the other hand, Eastern artistic representations do not use human models, because imagination must run freely according to them. Depth of spirit rather them a simple and copy-cat representation is what is essential according to Eastern artistic traditions.
In the same manner and following on the footsteps of the relationship between nature and religion, John La Farge discovered the staue of Buddha at kamakura and subsequently painted the watercolor "The Great Statue of Amida Buddha at Kamakura, Known as the Daibutsu, from the Priest's Garden," now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The statue itself is nowadays situated in the nature, in the forest, in the purest Eastern spirit possible. Originally located within the Great Buddha Temple, it was left outside upon the collapse of the religious establishment. The statue itself is perhaps one of the purest forms of Eastern expressions, following upon everything I have previously mentioned, and is thus represented by John La Farge in his watercolor. A meditation on the nearby nature, the statue can also be seen as a meditation on the human spirit and on the human condition.
One of the most interesting paintings by John La Farge, coming as a true symbiosis of Eastern and Western representations, is the painting entitled "Kwannon Meditating on Human Life," finished in 1908, only two years before the artist's death
. Many have seen here a merger of the Japanese deity and the Roman Catholic Virgin Mary. Recognized as a devout Catholic, this is not an improbable assertion, but, in my opinion, the representation gives way to a discussion on whether the painting represents an universal deity, a mixture of different symbols from other religions as well, into something that transcends specific religions.
There are several reasons for this. First of all, the halo is the typical representation of sainthood in Christianity. On the other hand, the position is quite unnatural, both for Christianity and for Buddhism. The sitting position with folded legs would rather suggest the appurtenance to Hindu beliefs, as a specific meditating figure. The figure nevertheless is Oriental and can be assimilated to the Japanese culture. It is also important to notice the nature reproductions in the background, as part of the concept of meditating in nature.
Referring back to John La Farge's account of his experience in Japan and the South Seas, one notices at first hand the exhaustive character of his work. An Artist's Letters from Japan is definitely one of the most complete accounts on Japanese culture, including here history, art or mythology. As a reader, one always has the impression that La Farge's attempts to cover almost everything that could be said on a specific subject and that he…