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Special Exhibition Reconsiders John La Farge's Contributions to American Art in Centenary Year of Artist's Death
John La Farge, Village of Navundi Wai Wai Vula, in Viti Levu, Fiji, 1891. Watercolor and gouache. Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Mass., Horace P. Wright Collection.
NEW HAVEN, CT.- In August of 1890, John La Farge (1835–1910) and his friend the renowned historian Henry Adams (1838–1918) embarked on a journey to the islands of the South Pacific—Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Rarotonga, Fiji, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore, and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka)—that would keep them away from home for more than a year. John La Farge’s Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890–1891 showcases almost 70 pieces from this trip, including sketchbooks, paintings, and watercolors, some executed on site, others upon La Farge’s return to his home studio. Organized by Elisabeth Hodermarsky, the Sutphin Family Associate Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs at the Yale University Art Gallery, the exhibition is on view from October 19, 2010, to January 2, 2011, and will travel to the Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Mass., from January 22 to March 27, 2011.

The exhibition is inspired by the acquisition by the Gallery of 11 previously unknown sketchbooks from the trip—also on display in the exhibition—filled with drawings of people and landscapes, as well as copious notes on culture and language, providing new insight into this period in La Farge’s career. John La Farge’s Second Paradise is the first exhibition to place La Farge’s South Seas work in the broader context of exotic travel by artists and writers of the 19th century. The exhibition and accompanying catalogue explore the artist’s reemergence as a plein air landscape painter, his use of the sketchbook, and his late decorative work, which was reinvigorated by his experience of light and color in the South Seas. The catalogue also examines the prevailing notions of tropical paradise perpetuated since Captain James Cook’s “discovery” of Polynesia in the late 18th century, and it offers the first extended comparison of the careers and art of La Farge and Paul Gauguin, who arrived in Tahiti only days after La Farge left in June of 1891.

The South Pacific trip had a deep and lasting impact on La Farge’s work. In the artist’s subsequent writings and lectures, murals, stained glass, oils, and watercolors, one can recognize a heightened awareness of color and light. During this, the centenary year of La Farge’s death, the Gallery is pleased to mount an exhibition that reconsiders the artist’s contributions to American art.

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