Painter, sculptor, illustrator, and stained glass artist. Versatile, worldly, and intellectually sophisticated, he numbered among the late nineteenth century's most respected American artists. A leading figure in the aesthetic movement, an important contributor to the American Renaissance, and an instigator of japonisme, as a painter he is admired particularly for introspective flower paintings and landscapes. He produced figural subjects as well, including portraits. His varied decorative projects included some of the period's finest and most original stained-glass windows. He also executed murals, most notably for Boston's Trinity Church. Innovative yet grounded in the tradition of old masters, he shared interests with American and European impressionists and symbolists. An early advocate of painting outdoors, he intently scrutinized light and color but remained unsatisfied with purely visual effect. Rather, he attempted to register the interaction of sensation with thought, aspiring to evoke the reality known to human consciousness but transcending scientific observation. Among his eloquent and well-informed writings, the theoretical Considerations on Painting (1895) remains an important pathway into the period's progressive ideas about aesthetics informed by current psychology and philosophy.
Born into a French-speaking family in New York, John Frederick Lewis Joseph La Farge received his earliest artistic instruction from his French-born maternal grandfather, Louis Binsse de Saint-Victor (1773–1844), who painted portraits and miniatures. Later he had some lessons from Régis François Gignoux. He enrolled in St. John's College (now part of Fordham University) in New York but completed his academic training at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, Maryland. Returning to New York, he entered a law firm to prepare for a legal career but continued to pursue an interest in art in his free time. In the spring of 1856 he traveled to Paris, where his omnivorous and mostly self-directed artistic education began in earnest. Cultivated and well-connected family members introduced him to leading French artists, writers, and intellectuals. He also made the acquaintance of the American community and haunted the Louvre. He studied with Thomas Couture, but only for a few weeks, and began to investigate the color theories of Eugène Chevreul. Already familiar with the Barbizon artists, whose graphics he had bought in New York, he started to collect Japanese prints, perhaps the first artist in the West to do so. Before his return home in the fall of 1857, he traveled widely on the Continent and visited England, where he was impressed by Pre-Raphaelitism. In New York he worked again in the legal profession but abandoned that endeavor permanently in 1859 when he left for Newport to study with William Morris Hunt. He resided there until the mid-1870s, while traveling often to Boston and New York. Later he lived primarily in New York but remained at least tenuously connected to Newport, where his wife and children remained. Besides assisting him technically, Hunt reinforced his attraction to the intimacy and naturalism of Barbizon painting. While still connected to Hunt's circle, as he developed a personal and delicately expressive style La Farge deviated from the older painter's tutelage. Notably, La Farge was more interested in color than Hunt, and he relished plein air painting, whereas Hunt preferred the studio. Through Hunt he became acquainted with fellow art student William James, who later achieved eminence in philosophy and psychology, and with his brother, the novelist Henry James. Several years older and more intellectually cultivated, La Farge must have been instrumental in formulating a central concern in the careers of all three: representing a material world that can be known only equivocally, in terms of its impact on mind. La Farge soon denoted this radical subjectivity most clearly in unassuming floral still lifes. Here brushwork, light, and shifting focus combine to suggest the fluidity of consciousness and the absence of clear demarcation between the material world and personal experience. These same elements at work in 1860s landscapes from nature give these works also a modern tenor that parallels and even anticipates French impressionists' handling of light and color.