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Window: Peonies in the Wind

Photo: Paul Macapia

Window: Peonies in the Wind

possibly 1889/reworked by 1908

John La Farge

Born New York City, New York, 1835; died Providence, Rhode Island, 1910

About 1876 . . . demands upon him for decoration led him to the careful observation of ancient stained glass, with a view to providing the modern world with something which might be to it what the windows of Reims Cathedral and Fairford Church were to the Middle Ages.

Critic Russell Sturgis, "John La Farge," Scribner's Magazine, July 1899

Around 1876, John La Farge's interests in the decoration of architectural interiors led him to the study of historical stained glass, which would ever after fascinate him. His inventions in colored glass would represent La Farge's greatest creative achievementand his breakthrough in this time-honored medium arguably stands as one of the most important and influential achievements of any artist of the nineteenth century.

For his work in glass, La Farge found models not in medieval types but in Japanese designs, which he admired and collected himself in ceramics, metalwork, prints and paintings. "Impressionistic" would seem an unlikely description to apply to any work created by artisans in rigidly structured, segmented, jig-saw-puzzle-like glass patterns, but the term aptly applies to this, La Farge's most experimental window design, which deliberately evokes a delicate Japanese ink and watercolor painting mounted on silk.

Let's explore La Farge's innovative, painterly use of transparent colored glass and his unprecedented translation of lyrical Japanese design motifs into a window for a modern Victorian-era interior.
Leaded glass with copper foil
56 x 26 in. (142.2 x 66 cm)
Acquired with donations from The Kreielsheimer Foundation, Ann and Tom Barwick, The Virginia Wright Fund, Ann H. and John H. Hauberg, The Margaret E. Fuller Purchase Fund, and the American Art Purchase Fund
87.143
Provenance: Estate of John La Farge, New York, 1910-1911; sold [American Art Galleries, New York, Catalogue of the Art Property. . . Estate of the Late John La Farge . . . , March 29-31, 1911, lot 321 (as Peonies in the Wind. After Japanese design. Border.)]; sold to [Charles W. Kraushaar, New York], to 1947; sold [Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, Exhibition and Sale at Parke-Bernet Galleries, Inc., sale no. 859, April 9-10, 1947, lot 205 (consigned by the estate of J.W. Kraushaar of Kraushaar Art Galleries, New York)]; sold to Charles T. Henry, St. Petersburg, Florida, 1947-1962 (with another La Farge window in one lot); to unidentified private collection, 1962-1963; sold to unidentified private collection,1963-1987; consigned to [Christie's, New York, Important Art Nouveau and Art Deco Glass, November 21, 1987, lot 142 (as Peonies Blown in the Wind, with Kakemono Border and dated ca. 1893-1908, "The Property of A Lady")]; sold to Seattle Art Museum
Photo: Paul Macapia
location
Now on view at the Seattle Art Museum

Painting With Light

two views
Snuff bottle, man on ox under pine tree, 19th century, Chinese, 33.926
The contrasts of density and transparency have always been very interesting to me, and the basis of my idea was in a large way the recall of the inlays of precious stones that are set in jade by Eastern artists.

—John La Farge, in a report to the French government on his new techniques of glass making, 1893
Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail of transparent glass, 78.143
It appeared that the modern materials and processes of glassmaking might give to the artist in glass a "palette" such as the medieval man had never possessed. . . . To this, then, La Farge set himself; to obtain glass of richness, depth, and glow of color hitherto unattempted, and in a multitude of tints.

—Critic Russell Sturgis, "John La Farge," Scribner's Magazine, July 1899
Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail of opaline glass elements, 87.143
What is called opal glass, opaline, and also opalescent glass may be said to have formed the basis of a new system of window decoration . . . . Uncolored opaline glass has a milky-white look when seen by reflected light; but by transmitted light its color passes from a cloudy bluish-gray to red, with a yellow spark. If, now, such glass be charged with color of many shades, the chromatic effects producible by the combination of such translucent materials, at once contrasting in color and harmonized by the opaline quality, might prove successful beyond what had been known.

—Critic Russell Sturgis, "John La Farge," Scribner's Magazine, July 1899
Peonies, 18th century, style of Kitagawa Soetsu, 68.109
La Farge recognized that the extreme verticality, flatness and decorative qualities of Japanese hanging scroll paintings suited them to translation into leaded glass designs. He even made reference to the silk or embroidered borders of the hanging scroll, or kakemono, in his window patterns. American painter Kenyon Cox (1856-1919), who wrote at length about La Farge's peony-design window after studying what is now the Seattle Art Museum's example when he visited La Farge's studio in 1908, explained about the care and informed understanding that went into La Farge's layout of the border design: "It is interesting to note that the borders, with their relations of width to each other and to the central panel, are according to a Japanese rule for the borders of a Kakemono."

Estate records show that La Farge had an extensive collection of Japanese kakemono, several with peony subjects. The design for his peony window likely came from a kakemono in La Farge's personal collection.

The Rage for Peonies

Photo: Paul Macapia
Detail, 87.143
Nature, the world of the eye, is always singing to the painter.

—John La Farge, quoted in 1896

The peony as a subject for a decorative window would have struck even many late-nineteenth-century viewers as an unusual design motif. Peonies were best known in Japan, and at the time La Farge began using the flower as a window design element, the peony was just beginning to enjoy new found popularity among American connoisseurs of flowers. Identifying La Farge's motif in the 1880s even proved to be a source of some confusion among those who were still unfamiliar with the exotic bloom. Some viewers and critics mistook the peonies depicted in La Farge's glass for roses on a bush.
White Peony, early 17th-late 19th century, Sakai Hoitsu, 49.241
The Japanese regard for the peony was the most direct spur to the rise of the peony craze in the United States in the second half of the nineteenth century. Visitors traveled to Japan in increasing numbers during those years and collected objects that documented the Japanese cult of the peony.
Courtesan Holding a Letter, ca. 1810s, Kikukawa Eizan
Associated as they were with femininity, peonies adorned highly collectible Japanese kimonos, which were worn as fashionable leisure garments by American women who had traveled to Japan themselves or simply followed the latest trend.

Compare Peony Windows

Photo: Paul Macapia
Window: Peonies in the Wind, ca. 1889, John La Farge, 87.143
Unlike the other windows shown here, the Seattle Art Museum's peony-design window by La Farge was never installed in a home. It remained in La Farge's studio to his death, when it was sold at an auction of the artist's estate. Because we do not know what led La Farge to create this particular version of the window, it is difficult to know precisely when it was made and how it relates to those extant windows that were done as architectural commissions. La Farge may have made the window as a working model for himself, even changing it at some point by 1908, as he further considered color and light effects.
Peonies in a Breeze, 1890, John La Farge
In his compulsion to create, as he put it, "light by colors," La Farge was drawn to painting in transparent watercolor. He understandably used watercolor to plan his window designs, painting in brilliant hues and color washes applied thinly onto the white paper to create the effect of light shining through colored glass. This large—it is almost the size of the museum's window itself—and elaborate watercolor was possibly a presentation piece La Farge made for a prospective client who commissioned a peony-designed window for his townhouse in Washington, D.C., in 1890.
Stained Glass Window: Peonies Blown in the Wind, ca. 1880, John La Farge
This window, the earliest known example of La Farge's peony design, was created for the palatial home of Henry G. Marquand (1819-1902) in Newport, Rhode Island.
Peonies Blown in the Wind, 1886, John LaFarge
This version was created by La Farge for the London studio of painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836-1912).
Photo: Jamison Miller
Peonies Blowing in the Wind, 1889, John La Farge
This version of La Farge's peony-design window was first exhibited in London in 1889 and then may have made its way to Paris and the much anticipated world's fair, the Universal Exposition of 1889, which would have been an important showcase for La Farge's modern, Japanese-inspired designs. This example, like the Seattle Art Museum window, was not created for a specific architectural setting; it was, rather, an exhibition piece.

Painting in Air

Window decoration is the art of painting in air with a material carrying colored light.

John La Farge, on "Windows," in A Dictionary of Architecture and Building, 1902
Detail, 87.143
Photo: Paul Macapia

Resources

Exhibition HistoryNew York, American Fine Arts Society, Architectural League of New York, Catalogue of the Twenty-Fourth Annual Exhibition of the Architectural League of New York in the Galleries of the American Fine Arts Society, Jan. 21-Feb. 20, 1909. Cat. no. 397 [as Peonies in the Wind. Glass].

Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, Department of Fine Arts.,Stained Glass Exhibition, Original Windows, Designs, Cartoons, Drawings of Medieval Windows, Nov. 13-Dec. 16, 1922. Cat. no. 128 [lent by Kraushaar Galleries].

Philadelphia, Philadelphia Musseum of Art, The Art of American Still Life: Audubon to Warhol, Oct. 27, 2015-Jan. 10. 2016. Text by Mark Mitchell. Cat. no. 67, pp. 188-189, reproduced plate 67.

Philadelphia, Philadelphia Art Museum, American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent, Feb. 16 - May 14, 2017. Text by KAthleen A. Foster. No cat. no., pp. 170-172, reproduced fig. 139, checklist p. 478.

Published ReferencesCox, Kenyon. "Art in America: Two Specimens of La Farge's Art Glass." Burlington Magazine (June 13, 1908): 183-184, reproduced.

"La Farge Sale, $17,738." New York Times, March. 11, 1911: p. 5.

Weinberg, H. Barbara. "John La Farge's Peonies Blown in the Wind." Pharos '75 (July 13, 1975): p. 9, reproduced p. 11.

cf. Adams, Henry, et al. John La Farge. New York: Abbeville Press, 1987; pp. 150-151, 159, n. 159.

"Lafarge [sic] Window included in Christie's November 21 Sale." Antiques & The Arts Weekly, November 13, 1987: p. 64, reproduced.

"Art Deco: New York, Christie's," Art and Auction (March 1988): p. 131.

Reif, Rita. "Auctions; the record price at auction for a La Farge window has aroused new interest in stained glass." New York Times, December 25, 1987: p. C18, reproduced.

Hackett, Regina. "Classical Glass; Seattle Art Museum Pays Top Dollar for Masterpiece." Seattle Post-Intelligencer, April 20, 1988: pp. C1, C6, reproduced.

Ament, Delores Tarzen. "SAM PAys Record Price for Stained-Glass Window." Seattle Times, April 21, 1988: p. F1.

Ament, Delores Tarzen. "Record Window; Museum's New Piece Needs Much New Repair." Seattle Times, April 25, 1988: pp. C1, C6.

Hoover, Richard L. "A La Farge Masterpiece." Stained Glass Quarterly 85, no. 1 (Spring 1990): p. 52.

Selected Works: Seattle Art Museum. Seattle: Seattle Art Museum, 1991; p. 108, reproduced p. 109.

cf. Sloan, Julie L. and James L. Yarnall. "Art of an Opaline Mind: The Stained Glass of John La Farge." American Art Journal 24, nos. 1 and 2 (1992): p. 24.

Junker, Patricia. "A Sense of Place: American Art and the Seattle Art Museum." The Magazine Antiques (November 2008): p. 11, reproduced fig. 5.

Foster: Kathleen. American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent. Exh. Cat. Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2017; p. 171, reproduced fig. 139.

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