As if witnessing American artist John La Farge’s voyage first hand, visitors to the Yale University Art Gallery see paintings with earth-toned borders scattered around walls of blue and turquoise.
The exhibition, titled “John La Farge’s Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891,” evokes memories of a vivid trip to the deep South Pacific Ocean. Curated by Lisa Hodermarsky, Sutphin family associate and curator of prints, drawings and photographs, the exhibition displays a collection of some of the finest works from La Farge’s voyage.
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La Farge set out on his trip to the South Pacific in 1890. One of the first Americans to travel there without a political or military agenda, he visited Hawaii, Samoa, Tahiti, Rarotonga, Fiji, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka).
The first-floor exhibition space — where “Second Paradise” is on view — was booked, and it was challenging to find a slot of time in which a private tour was not being led. After a 15-minute long phone call with the public relations representative and talks with multiple security guides, I was finally able to secure a brief window of time to experience La Farge’s works.
I was directed to begin in the very left corner of the gallery, in which a small blurry painting of a lava precipice, “The Great Pali,” was secured next to a small block of text describing La Farge’s experience in Hawaii. In Hawaii, the vast majority of his works were completed in watercolor on gouache in an impressionist style, almost as if the vast beauty of the Hawaiian landscape could only be described in large strokes of vibrant color.
Moving clockwise around the border of the room, with a map stationed in the center of the exhibition for occasional reference, I was able to follow La Farge’s journey chronologically.
The evolution of La Farge’s style was increasingly evident as I walked around the aquamarine walls. In Samoa, La Farge focused on capturing native dances and culture in his works through expressionism; in Tahiti, his worked seemed mythological and somewhat biblical with depictions of the human figure juxtaposed with majestic landscapes; in Fiji, Indonesia, Singapore and Ceylon, he depicted dances and monuments with a sense of nostalgia and a reverence for the sublime.
His sketchbooks are scattered under small glass cases — most are no larger than three by six inches. Yet, within the seemingly insignificant scraps of paper lay the most intricate notes of Polynesian culture, of the Hawaiian language, of the flora and fauna on Samoa. I found myself looking at the scribbles and imagining La Farge holding the very sketchbook in front of me, sitting on the shore of Fiji sketching the landscape.
Halfway around the loop I encountered one of the most striking pieces in the gallery, “The Entrance to Tautira River, Tahiti Fisherman Spearing a Fish.” The largest oil-on-canvas painting completed during La Farge’s South Pacific expedition, it stands boldly on the center of the back wall next to the lines of smaller works. The piece depicts a fisherman standing in a body of water in a valley formed by a mountain range. Compared to reality, the figure is no bigger than a soda can, and holding his spear, he waits for the perfect moment to plunge it into the vast blue waters. The man, who stands with a companion, is dwarfed by the range of tall lavender and green mountains looming in the background.
Humility — that is precisely what the La Farge exhibition evokes. Viewers will truly appreciate La Farge’s efforts to capture the tangible beauty of the South Pacific — a world that was not yet open to visitors simply hoping to experience it. Like people from the 19th century, even if you never get a chance to visit Fiji in person, La Farge’s works in “Second Paradise” will take you there.
“John La Farge’s Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891” will run until January 2.