A pair of monumental historic paintings, The Virgin and St. John the Evangelist at the Foot of the Cross, by the famous 19th century American artist John La Farge, will be exhibited for the first time in seventy-five years by the Newport gallery William Vareika Fine Arts at the Boston International Fine Art Show, November 17-20, 2011, at the Cyclorama, Boston Center for the Arts.
Among the largest and most important paintings ever created by La Farge, these works were lost until recently and were last publicly shown in 1936 when they were loaned by the Whitney Museum to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for An Exhibition of the Work of John La Farge. The only time that they were seen in Boston was exactly 133 years ago, on November 19 and 20, 1878, at a sale at the Pierce and Company Auction House at 5 Park Street. The names of La Farge patrons at that 1878 sale include many of the cultural elite of Boston: Bartol, Cabot, Gardner, Higginson, Hooper, Lothrop, Lowell, Paine. Several paintings offered in the Pierce sale are today in the collections of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
Part of a large triptych Crucifixion ensemble commissioned in 1862 for Saint Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in New York City, only the two side panels, representing Saint John the Evangelist on the right and the Virgin Mary on the left, were completed by La Farge, and the altar piece was never installed in the historic church. The paintings are on thick mahogany panels each measuring 95 ½ by 29 ½ inches, with arched tops and frames adorned with gilded putti.
In designing these masterworks, perhaps the first decorative creations by the “Father” of the American mural movement, the artist drew upon 14th century Italian altarpieces. La Farge expert Professor James L. Yarnall observes that “the poses and attenuated silhouettes of the figures are especially reminiscent of work from the Byzantine and Sienese schools of the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.” Departing from his precedents, however, La Farge “gave the narrative a modern feeling through the introduction of an atmospheric landscape and breath-taking perspective.”
The view looks east across a coastal Rhode Island landscape near Newport, where La Farge was living at the time the panels were painted. Yarnall notes that the features of Saint John are those of the artist’s close friend and Harvard psychologist and philosopher, William James, and the features of the Virgin Mary are those of the artist’s wife, Margaret Mason Perry La Farge.
In 1884, the paintings were purchased at Ortgies and Company in New York by William Collins Whitney for his residence in Old Westbury, Long Island, New York, at the insistence of famed architect Stanford White, and they remained in the Whitney family for many years. Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney gifted them to the Whitney Museum at its opening in 1931. In 1934 artist and La Farge student Leon Dabo remembered that La Farge had worked for two years on this project “which remains one of his most important paintings.” In 1950, when the Whitney Museum determined to limit its collection to 20th century American art, they were sold by Knoedler and Company to Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney.
Apparently, the works were hung in Whitney’s palatial residence in Trujillo, Spain until 1983 when they were acquired by his legendary Madrid decorator Duarte Pinto Coehlo for his home in Trujillo, a former convent. Coehlo died last year and in July his possessions were sold in a country house sale in London. The paintings were acquired at that sale by William Vareika and have been returned to the US and conserved just in time for the Boston Show.
Born in New York City in 1835, painter, engraver, muralist, illustrator, lecturer, writer, and stained glass artist, John La Farge is one of the most important American artists and cultural figures of the 19th Century. La Farge studied in the Newport, Rhode Island studio of William Morris Hunt and became one of the first American artists to paint landscapes in the open air. During the 1860s he produced the first impressionist experiments on American soil and created some of the most beautiful floral still lifes ever painted. In 1876 La Farge worked with architect Henry Hobson Richardson on the interior decoration of Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston, producing stained glass windows and monumental murals. With his work at Trinity, La Farge is considered to have initiated the American Renaissance movement. In 1886 and 1891, the artist traveled to Japan and the South Seas, producing paintings of his travels and publishing illustrated books of his adventures. La Farge’s artistic career earned him appointment to the French Legion of Honor. When the artist died in Providence, Rhode Island in 1910 he was eulogized by the art critic and biographer Royal Cortissoz as: “our sole ‘Old Master’, our sole type of genius that went out with the Italian Renaissance.”
William Vareika became acquainted with the art of John La Farge in 1971 while practicing transcendental meditation in Trinity Church, Boston, the day that he was searching for a term paper topic in the one art history course he studied while a pre-law major at Boston College. After college, he abandoned law school plans to volunteer to direct a legal effort to save a La Farge decorated church in Newport that had become endangered. Along with work as a part-time janitor at the Newport Art Museum, he modestly embarked upon a career as an art dealer in order to support himself during this six year preservation fight.
When he opened his Newport gallery in 1987, his specialty was the art of John La Farge and other important American artists who had been attracted to the Newport and Narragansett Bay region in the 18th 19th and early 20th centuries. To date, he has probably owned more artworks by John La Farge than any art dealer in history. Recently, Vareika spearheaded another La Farge preservation effort that led to the gift of 13 endangered La Farge stained glass windows to Salve Regina University in Newport, where a chapel was designed and built by architect Robert A.M. Stern to house them.
William Vareika learned of the existence of the lost paintings of “The Virgin and St. John the Evangelist at the Foot of the Cross” in 1983 when they were published as “location unknown” in an article in The American Art Journal. He has been searching for them ever since. It is the culmination of a career devoted to a particular artist that he was able to have acquired them and to offer them for sale in the city where he discovered John La Farge and where these magnificent artworks were first shown in 1878.
The 15th annual Boston International Fine Art Show opens with a Gala Preview opening night to benefit Greater Boston Food Bank. Gala tickets are $100 and $250 and can be purchased online at www.gbfb.org/events, or by calling the show office. Weekend Show hours are Friday 1pm-9pm, Saturday 11am-8pm and Sunday 11am-5pm. Tickets are $15, under 12 free. All special programs www.FineArtBoston.com or call 617-363-0405.
Editor's Note • Interviews with William Vareika on request
• Media coverage of the Boston International Fine Art Show is invited.
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