By Stephen Schmalhofer
Sixteen days before Willa Cather died she wrote to Sigrid Undset lamenting “the strange deterioration in human beings” evident in the desire of seemingly every American “to want to live in New York City, drink cocktails, and wear outrageous clothes.” Four days later she wrote to another friend complaining about the “soft lot” of young people clustered around Gertrude Stein in France: “Some of them wore bracelets!!” She thought it took a special kind of American to appreciate France. “He must have character and depth, and a passion for the things that lie deep behind French history and French art.” In this role her beau ideal was Henry Adams and she wished she could have had “a comfortable boardinghouse near Chartres when [he] used to prowl about the cathedral.” But even Adams needed a guide to take him back to the age of faith, when men sacrificed scarce resources to build cathedrals as royal houses for the Virgin Queen of Heaven. He found his guide in Catholic artist John La Farge (1835–1910).
Adams’s friendship with this American painter and stained-glass artist led him to Chartres, but their pilgrimage to the great cathedral of light began in darkness. Following a battle with depression, Adams’s wife Clover committed suicide by swallowing potassium cyanide. Her death did not cancel Adams’s planned holiday in Japan but now he had tragic need for a traveling companion. John La Farge was grappling with his muse inside New York City’s Church of the Ascension on Tenth Street, grasping for a hold on the enormous mural that would make the church Cather’s favorite. Adams invited him to Japan where the atmospheric mountains could supply the necessary inspiration for his work and he could sink into “a bath for the brain in some water absolutely alien.”
With Adams paying the bill (the Catholic La Farge had to maintain his large family, including eight children, in Newport, Rhode Island, and his artist’s studio in Manhattan), the pair took advantage of brother Charles Adams’s presidential privileges with the Union Pacific and occupied the directors’ private railcar on the westward journey while Adams studied Buddhism and La Farge sketched Western scenery. A quick-thinking local reporter spotted the private car at a stop in Omaha and interrogated La Farge about the purpose of their trip. The artist replied that they were in search of Nirvana. With the quick wit of youth, the newsboy quipped, “It’s out of season.”
La Farge had already made a serious study of Japanese art prior to joining Adams’s trip. He judged Hokusai a great master in the class of Raphael, Michelangelo, Velasquez, Rembrandt, and Durer. Japan was also something of a family affair. In one of those intersections of heredity and history that marked the route of Adams’s life, La Farge’s wife Margaret was the grand niece of Commodore Perry. Another crossing was laid down when La Farge’s son John Louis Bancel married Adams’s niece, Mabel Hooper. Mabel was one of the nieces and “nieces-in-wish” to whom Adams dedicated his classic Mont Saint Michel and Chartres. She completed the spiritual journey of her uncle’s book when she converted to the faith of her husband’s family.
With a mystical aura, La Farge dressed in all black and would have been mistaken for a priest if his suits were not made of the finest linen and silk. His friend, art and architecture critic Royal Cortissoz, who defended the common man against the aesthetic sins of modernism, felt that at times La Farge wore the visage of an old Italian priest and speculated that in the Renaissance “he would have been a Cardinal statesman, one of those militant princes of the Church who triumphed, however, by astuteness rather than by force of arms.”
Touring Buddhist temples, their priests reminded La Farge of old Italian monsignore. “When I sketch near the pagoda I see him occasionally ringing the hanging-bell or cymbal, with the same step and air of half-unconscious performance of habitual duty that I remember so well in Catholic priests whom I knew as a boy.” He was touched by the story of one of Japan’s bloodiest battles in 1600 when three warriors who had converted to Christianity would not “take their own lives in defeat, as their Japanese traditions of honor commanded. Hence the victor had them beheaded—a shameful death, and thereby heroic.” In Nikko, he made his study for his Ascension “in an atmosphere not inimical, as ours is, to what we call the miraculous,” in a place where “the great mass of fog spread to the farthest mountains, letting their highest tops shine through with a pale-blue faintness like that of sky … and of a vivid green against the background of violet mountains.” While he painted, Adams read Dante’s Paradiso upstairs. After La Farge completed his Ascension, one church lady was troubled that he “had made these studies of clouds in a pagan country, while a true Episcopalian would make them, I suppose, in England.”
Adams and La Farge met Robert Louis Stevenson in Polynesia. Stevenson had already penned his defense of Father Damien on Molokai and the novelist and the artist were quickly taken with each other. Of Adams, Stevenson had not the slightest recognition and the historian found himself sitting and listening to the other men talk, an experience to which he was unaccustomed.
Back from the Pacific and after an interval apart, La Farge tutored “his pupil” at Chartres, where “La Farge not only felt at home but felt a sort of ownership,” Adams writes in his Education. “No other American had a right there, unless he too was a member of the Church and worked in glass.” At Chartres, La Farge led Adams, “a child of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries,” back to the twelfth. For Adams, “the question how much he owed to La Farge could be answered only by admitting that he had no standard to measure it by.” La Farge beat Tiffany to the patent office with his opalescent stained glass and Adams saw that his artist’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.”
Adams came to understand that gothic architecture was not gloomy. “The necessity for light was the motive of the gothic architects,” he writes of Chartres. “They needed light and always more light, until they sacrificed safety and common-sense in trying to get it.” Cortissoz observes that La Farge’s art contained “little knots of form, meant to hold color in solution; cunningly wrought webs in which to imprison light” and his windows were “curtains of jewels hung between us and the light, pieces of some new kind of luminous poetry.”
Cortissoz felt in La Farge a “lively sense of the privilege of carrying French blood in his veins.” His grandmother, old Madame Binsse de Saint Victor, was a formidable woman yet full of warmth. “She was not exactly pious,” writes La Farge, “but very religious, despising all meannesses and details of worship but holding fast to the essentials of belief.” To the “ever-present law of the Roman Church” was added the reinforcement of a high church English governess and an Alsatian nurse with “barbarous” views of religion and history. La Farge enjoyed with a “satirical pleasure her statements as to the ignoble way in which Martin Luther and his wife had been treated by the Pope at some festival.” His father laid down a simple, strict code of morality and abhorred lying. He grew up in an elegant house in New York, where he was encouraged to devote much time to reading. Robinson Crusoe was an early favorite and he added volumes of Voltaire, Bossuet, and Homer to his childhood library.
His education included stints at Columbia and Fordham. Long before he traveled with Adams to the mountains of Japan he went south to receive his degree in 1853 from “The Mount”—Mount St. Mary’s College in Emmitsburg, Maryland. At the college he overlapped briefly with the grandsons of St. Elizabeth Ann Seton and the future archbishop of Indianapolis. La Farge was befriended by an Oxford man, Rev. Henry S. McMurdie, a former Anglican clergyman who had joined the Oxford Movement with Newman and became a Catholic priest. Supplying the leaven of English letters to the Irish American Church, McMurdie preached with beauty and elegance. He corresponded frequently with Orestes Brownson, who visited and spoke on campus. (La Farge was later hired by Brownson’s friend Fr. Isaac Hecker at the Church of St. Paul in Manhattan.) During a strictly silent winter walk up the campus mountain to Mass, La Farge was thrilled by the “surplice of sleet” hung from the trees. “Oh! Look!” the young artist urged his companions. McMurdie defended La Farge against disciplinary action for breaking the code of silence. La Farge judged college life as antithetical to the development of an artist, but McMurdie was an exception. He directed La Farge’s imagination towards European art.
“The man of imagination,” writes Matthew Arnold, “… will always have a weakness for the Catholic Church, because of the rich treasures of human life which have been stored within her pale.” La Farge described his own mind as “religiously attuned” and alongside other powerful imaginations he could guide the conversation to higher things. Viola Roseboro, Willa Cather’s colleague at McClure’s Magazine, watched La Farge paint the Ascension altarpiece and she published him alongside Cather in McClure’s. La Farge’s Catholic sense of time slowed her pursuit of intellectual fads and calmed her inconstant enthusiasms. A friend recalled at the end of her life that she “often said if John La Farge were alive she would ask him to convert her. She said he would be the only one who could do it.” La Farge also mingled with the Pre-Raphaelites and enjoyed the friendship of Christina Rossetti, who was “blurred by her father’s Dantean, anarchistic ideas and the pressure of things English around her.” They spoke of religion and he answered her questions about the Catholic Church.
La Farge was ecumenical in his art, completing work in churches of many Christian denominations, even earning a feast day on the Episcopalian liturgical calendar. Cortissoz writes that it was “by a kind of inner spiritual right that he entered the innumerable churches he decorated.” La Farge was a craftsman in the medieval mold and an American Old Master sent to us from the lost age of faith. His well-known Jesuit son Father John confirmed that his father died “in the possession of a lively Christian faith—and it was the faith of his fathers.” After a requiem Mass at St. Francis Xavier Church he was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery where he awaits the archangel’s trumpet blast that will resound from Mont Saint Michel to the Mount of St. Mary’s and pierce the fog above the peaks of Nikko.
Stephen Schmalhofer is a graduate of Yale College. He writes from Connecticut.