Peony Windows and Patent Wars: Thoughts on an Artist Who Revolutionized Stained Glass
March 31 is the birthday of an American pioneer, long overshadowed by a more entrepreneurial rival
“The Secret Discovered by the Well Known Artist Changed the Process of Manufacture All Over the World,” said the New York Times in May 1910.
For centuries, European artists painted on transparent glass to create the windows that brought beauty to churches. But this was tedious work, done at great risk and cost. Cathedral windows, “made at immense expense, might fade or the paint crack and fall away,’’ the paper said.
“It remained for an American artist to revolutionize the art, and not only improve the method but incalculably improve the quality of the work,” the Times said. “He was John La Farge.”
Yes, John La Farge.
You may have thought the newspaper article and this Medium post were about La Farge’s rival — Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Apologies for the bait-and-switch approach. But how many of you would have read this post with La Farge’s name in the headline? Ahead of what would have been his 185th birthday on March 31, La Farge’s contributions to American art deserve more attention.
LaFarge was one of the first American painters to turn to Asia for inspiration. He imported Japanese color prints in the 1860s. Later his interests expanded into glasswork. Dissatisfied with the materials available, La Farge developed techniques to imbue glass with colors. This combination of interests paid off in his masterworks, a series of windows that featured peonies.
Consider “Peacocks and Peonies I,” now part of the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
Each “peony blossom is a single piece of glass molded to catch the light differently through the day. La Farge layered his colored glass as a painter would build glazes of colors to achieve the right shade,” the Smithsonian’s description of this work says.
The panels recall Chinese and Japanese screens with their motifs of birds and flowers, the label said. For comparison, below is an 1820 work by Japanese artist Tani Bunchō. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website describes this artist as having been influenced by Chinese paintings.
The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City is home to another of La Farge’s peony windows. On my visit there, the label for this window said it was based on Japanese scrolls that La Farge hung in his studio.
La Farge’s interest in Asian art may have had its roots in his childhood.
Near the end of his life, La Farge recalled for his biographer how he would accompany his father on visits to a man who imported goods from China. La Farge noticed how different these goods were from the Sèvres pottery, emblematic of France, used in the LaFarge home. The Chinese wares fascinated young La Farge, so much so he once committed a theft, risking the ill will of his stern father.
“ I saw some little image and put it in my pocket and by the time I got home I was in despair. I had done a thing which was very bad , out of mere want of thought. As soon as we got home I told my father, thinking the world would end then and there, but it did not,” the artist recalls in “John La Farge : A Memoir and Study,” (1911), written by Royal Cortissoz.
The artist’s father, Jean-Frédéric de la Farge, arrived in the Americas as part of a French naval expedition. Napoleon was trying to regain control of the Caribbean colony of Saint-Domingue.
Under the leadership of a former slave Toussaint Louverture, the black majority living in Saint-Domingue was finally in charge the colony. Louverture was captured and sent to France, where died in a chilly mountain prison. But his generals carried on and drove the French from the island, establishing the nation of Haiti. Jean-Frédéric de la Farge fled to the United States, instead of returning to France.
It’s beyond the scope of this essay to explore how many French and American families grew rich from slavery. But sugar production in Saint-Domingue involved acts of cruelty that stand out even in the tragic history of American slavery. C.L.R. Lewis details these in his book, “The Black Jacobins.”
In his biography of La Farge, Cortissoz writes of how the artist’s maternal grandfather also fled Saint-Domingue, losing his plantation. In the United States, he taught painting. La Farge recalls his grandfather having a “dislike” of slavery due to a trip taken to Africa “where he saw, of course, some of the horrors of what was to be the basis of his fortune.”
Many of the French from Saint-Domingue continued with plantation life in the United States. La Farge’s father went to the island as a military man. But he would later own a Louisiana plantation along with many properties in Manhattan and upstate New York, according to Cortissoz.
The La Farge family prospered, at least in the artist’s earlier years. Born in 1935, LaFarge finished college and dabbled in law before leaving in 1856 for Europe. He visited family in Paris and wandered about the continent. He returned to the United States in 1859 and settled in Newport, Rhode Island, where he studied with American romantic artist William Morris Hunt. Exempted from duty in the Civil War due to weak eyesight, La Farge in the 1860s began to order color prints from Japan.
La Farge also began experimenting with ways to improve on decorative uses of glass.
Before the 1870s, the look of stained glass “had remained essentially unchanged since medieval times when craftsmen utilized flat panes of white and colored glass with details painted with glass paints before firing and leading,” Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen and and Monica Obniski wrote in the Met’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.
It would be Tiffany and La Farge who “revolutionized the look of stained glass,” Frelinghuysen and Obniski wrote.
La Farge would recount later in his life how Tiffany visited him in the 1870s, according to Julie L. Sloan’s excellent article about the fierce rivalry between the two artists. At the time of this meeting, Tiffany was a fellow painter who already had developed an interest in using glass as a medium. La Farge said he showed Tiffany his experiments with what was called opalescent glass and how layering glass could achieve different colors and effects.
“If we accept La Farge’s recollections that he and Tiffany were on apparently good terms at that time, friendly enough for La Farge to show the young artist his work, clearly something went wrong after that,” Sloan wrote.
La Farge filed in November 1879 for a patent. He claimed his methods for using materials such as peroxide of tin and chloride of silver allowed new depths of expressions of color in glass.
“By varying the opacity of any portion of the glass by any of the Ways herein described, it is obvious that I may gain great advantage as to realistic representation of natural objects, as, for instance, the clouding of a blue sky with more or less intensity of white cloud,” La Farge wrote in his patent application.
He was awarded U.S. patent 24,831 on Feb. 24,1880.
But Tiffany quickly followed him. He filed in October 25, 1880 for a similar “Colored-Glass Window” patent. On February 8, 1881, Tiffany received patent number 237,417.
“La Farge’s patent was for the use of the material, while Tiffany’s was for its assembly,” Sloan wrote. “Both patents were important in theory: without permission to use La Farge’s, Tiffany’s was not possible, but without permission to use Tiffany’s, La Farge could not assemble windows of opalescent glass.”
According to La Farge, Charles L. Tiffany, Louis Tiffany’s father and owner of Tiffany & Co., the jewelers and silversmiths, around 1880 suggested a partnership between his son and La Farge, Sloan wrote. This never came to pass. Instead, tensions simmered between the two. For years after, “references to lawsuits lurk in La Farge’s correspondence as well as in letters and reminiscences of others,” Sloan wrote.
Tiffany popularized stained glass. Best known as Tiffany Studios, his various businesses operated from 1878 to 1933.
“Under Tiffany’s watch, teams of talented designers and craftspeople translated his all-encompassing vision into the beautiful objects — blown-glass vases, leaded-glass windows and lamps, pottery, jewelry, and more — that captivated an era,” says the website for one of the largest collections of the artist’s work, the Morse Museum of Winter Park, Florida.
The success allowed Tiffany to build a magnificent estate, Laurelton Hall, on Long Island’s tony North Shore. It is here where Spanish painter Joaquín Sorolla made this portrait of Tiffany. A lover of nature, Tiffany is shown in his own garden, surrounded by flowers.
La Farge stuck with windows and grander commissions, and had far less luck in business.
Art historian James Yarnell spins a lively tale about how La Farge at age 50 came to be arrested on charges of grand larceny — filed against him by the company named for him, La Farge Decorative Art Co.
“His lax management of commissions led to a string of legal entanglements that drained his finances and ruined his peace of mind,” Yarnell wrote in his 1990 book, “John La Farge: Watercolors and Drawings.”
A group of businessmen formed La Farge Decorative Art Co. in 1883 due to the artist’s mismanagement of his projects. But they then sought to trade on La Farge’s fame and reputation. They denied La Farge what he considered proper control of the work produced by the firm, Yarnell wrote.
Newspapers reported on La Farge’s 1885 arrest and dispute with La Farge Decorative Art Co. It took several months before the artist was exonerated and finally shed of the company named for him, Yarnell wrote. But the “debacle” ultimately left La Farge free of management responsibility at a crucial time.
In 1885, the wife of writer Henry Adams had committed suicide. Clover Adams, a photographer, drank chemicals used in her studio. Adams would honor her memory with this famous work by Augustus Saint-Gaudens, placed in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Adams sought to distance himself from this loss. He planned a trip to Japan and recruited his friend, La Farge, to join him. He even paid La Farge’s way for an 1886 trip to Japan, Yarnell wrote. La Farge made sketches and took notes that would later be incorporated in his 1877 book, An artist’s letters from Japan.
In 1890, La Farge and Adams set out for Hawaii and then the South Seas. That put La Farge in Polynesia ahead of French painter Paul Gauguin, who set sail for Tahiti in 1891. La Farge published a book about this trip as well, titled “Reminiscences of the South seas.” La Farge , who died in 1910, would make money selling pictures based on his travels for the rest of his career, Yarnell wrote.
This is the first of what I hope will be many Medium essays that use a famous person’s birthday as a news peg. Feel free to offer suggestions for future posts in the comments section.
La Farge and his love of beauty seemed an excellent refuge from the news about coronavirus.
But I am writing in March 2020, when all things seem to lead back to Covid-19. La Farge’s biographer, Cortissoz, writes of how the artist had a “distaste for the promiscuous shaking of hands.” La Farge would keep a paint brush in one hand and a handkerchief when expecting visitors, giving his a polite way to avoid this gesture. How wise that seems today.
In “An artist’s letters from Japan,” La Farge writes about the cherry trees he saw. They “cover the ground with a snow of blossoms, and the whole world turns out to enjoy them, as we do the first snows of winter,” La Forge wrote. Families “travel far before the dawn to see the first light touch new buds. Where else do the newspapers announce the spring openings of the blossoms?”
Tokyo presented the U.S. in 1912 with a gift of about 3,000 cherry trees. Many of these were planted around the Tidal Basin in D.C. These days, every local D.C. news site reports on when these cherry blossoms will open. It is a delight to see these trees in bloom, but one sadly missed this year. Too many people crowded onto the narrow path of the Tidal Basin. That forced the closure of this popular site to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
In writing this post, I was frustrated by the poor quality of my photos of the La Farge windows at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. In another time, I could have biked over from my home on Capitol Hill and shot better photos.
Museums around the world are closed these days. That’s a smart and necessary measure. But it hurts to think of all of the art, made to be admired, hidden from the public until we get a handle on this virus.