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ART REVIEW

An excellent South Seas adventure

Area inspired American La Farge before Gauguin arrived

John La Farge’s “Portrait of Faase, the Taupo, or Official Virgin of Fagaloa Bay, and her Duenna, Samoa’’ (above) and “Entrance to Tautira River, Tahiti.’’ John La Farge’s “Portrait of Faase, the Taupo, or Official Virgin of Fagaloa Bay, and her Duenna, Samoa’’ (above) and “Entrance to Tautira River, Tahiti.’’ (Collection of Mr. And Mrs. Willard G. Clark (Above); Metropolitan Museum of Art (Below))
By Sebastian Smee
Globe Staff / January 30, 2011

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This winter weather calls for a trip to Tahiti. Any takers?

Ugh, me neither. Kids, mortgage, unflagging commitment to my work — the usual.

Still, I have a suggestion. If you can’t make the Tahiti trip, the next best thing has to be a visit to the Addison Gallery of American Art, in Andover, where a small exhibition pungent with the fragrance of hibiscus and frangipani opened last weekend. Evocatively titled “John La Farge’s Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891,’’ the show was organized by Elisabeth Hodermarsky and comes to Andover after a 2 1/2-month spell at the Yale University Art Gallery.

La Farge was one of the most interesting figures in late-19th-century American art. He is best known today for his decorative murals and his stained glass (he, not Louis Comfort Tiffany, invented opalescent stained glass). You can see two of La Farge’s splendid windows in the Art of the Americas Wing at the Museum of Fine Arts, while Boston’s Trinity Church is home to his expansive — and hugely influential — interior decorative scheme.

In one of those historical near-misses that taunts the mind, La Farge departed Tahiti just five days before Paul Gauguin arrived. To Gauguin, a syphilitic narcissist, Tahiti represented an idea, a dream, which had formed in his mind long before he traveled there and to which he stubbornly clung in the face of all the crashing incursions of reality. (Abandoned by his 14-year-old Tahitian concubine, he ended his days in a rat- and cockroach-infested hovel, suffering from eye infections, fainting fits, and ulcerated sores on his legs).

There was no doubt that La Farge, like so many Europeans and Americans at the time — and still today — was under the sway of a related dream of exoticism. He had read some of the same books as Gauguin, and was influenced by the same stories of South Seas adventure.

But he had a very different cast of mind. A writer, painter, decorator, and businessman, he was superbly curious and versatile. “In conversation,’’ wrote his friend and traveling companion, the historian Henry Brooks Adams, “La Farge’s mind was opaline with infinite shades and refractions of light, and with color toned down to the finest gradations.’’

Soon after first meeting La Farge, William James declared, “He knows everything. He has read everything. He has seen everything — paints everything. He’s a marvel!’’ Henry James, meanwhile, looking back on their acquaintance, described La Farge as “quite the most interesting person we knew . . . he opened up to us . . . prospects and possibilities that made the future flush and swarm.’’

La Farge was 55 when, in 1890, he decided he wanted to feel the flush and swarm of the South Seas. The spur to travel came from Adams, with whom he had traveled to Japan four years previously.

The two men and their Japanese valet, Rioza Awoki, set out from New York on Aug. 16. After crossing the country by train, they boarded a steamer, Zealandia, in San Francisco and arrived in Hawaii exactly two weeks after leaving home.

Unlike Gauguin, La Farge responded to what he saw in the South Seas with as much anthropological and scientific curiosity as straightforward artistic ambition. His pictures — mostly watercolors — have a diaristic quality. Many of them include lengthy written descriptions of what he had seen and learned. (The show includes a display of his sketchbooks and a well-designed touch screen that allows you to flick through digital reproductions of their pages.)

In Hawaii, La Farge and Adams visited tourist sites and settled into vacation mode. La Farge painted one evocative oil: a small landscape showing a view through green mountains to distant peaks and the sea and sky beyond. The colors — deep greens and expansive blues — are rich and true, and the composition arrestingly empty of incident.

After a month in Hawaii, they moved on to uncolonized Samoa. “The true Polynesia,’’ is how Adams described it, and you can feel, in both men’s descriptions — both visual and written — the distinctive excitement of long-held fantasies being confirmed and enriched by reality.

“Natives and cocoanuts, coral reefs and bread-fruit, thatched huts and old-gold girls, all in profusion, hardly touched by white improvement,’’ wrote Adams. “Society is a complete communism; no-one suffers from want. . . . They share with you, and you are bound in honor to accept all their customs if you take advantage of one.’’

La Farge fell under the spell of the native Siva dance, one of many indigenous rituals that continued to coexist with Christian mores introduced by missionaries. With evident enthusiasm, he got to work depicting Samoan girls and boys dancing at night, jotting down descriptions of movements and body measurements as he went.

Even in his state of excitement, in other words, La Farge’s empirical impulses inclined him toward close observation and realistic renderings. There’s a sobriety in the results that feel a world away from Gauguin’s hybrid symbolist fantasies. Instead, they show the influence of Delacroix, whose North African watercolors and journals were an abiding influence on La Farge.

Compare, for instance, La Farge’s delicately worked up “Siva With Siakumu Making Kava in Tofae’s House’’ with Gauguin’s bold “Te faaturuma (I) (The Brooding Woman)’’ in the Worcester Art Museum: It’s like the difference between journalism and great fiction.

At the same time, however, La Farge was seduced, almost drugged, by the atmosphere, and increasingly possessed by the desire to find ways to capture its colors, its textures, and its effect on his imagination. In watercolor and gouache he rendered a meeting hut in moonlight from an evocative distance across the grass, and in oil he painted a shoreline clump of trees, dark against a pink sun sinking into the sea. In a first-rate catalog essay, Hodermarsky describes the artist reveling in “aquas, lavenders, and corals by day, and in inky indigos, sapphires, and crimsons by night.’’

La Farge’s sketches and vivid letters home remind us of the enormous impact of southern climes on modern artists — from Delacroix to Matisse — in their struggle to liberate color from the prevailing conventions of artistic description. “Nothing is ever pale,’’ La Farge wrote to his son, “there is color everywhere & local color even of the faintest remains.’’

It’s no wonder that La Farge, like Matisse in the next century, was so engaged by the color potential in stained glass. This exhibition includes the only window La Farge made using a South Seas subject: a small, 1909 work that shows a Samoan dancing the Siva. With one arm outstretched and two fingers pointing up, the dancer resembles a heavenly angel offering a benediction.

After Samoa, La Farge and Adams traveled to Tahiti and then on to Fiji. Tahitian society, colonized by the French, struck them as pitiful compared to independent Samoa, and La Farge responded by focusing his attention on the landscape.

When they sailed to the nearby island of Moorea, west of Tahiti, the collision of dream and reality sparked an extended euphoria: “Why could we not have found the place at first?’’ lamented Adams. “I shall never meet another spot so suitable to die in. The world actually vanishes here.’’

La Farge’s handsome rendering of palm trees seen against needle-like outcrops of rock and a distant, mist-veiled mountain chimes beautifully with Adams’s declaration that Moorea “is solitude such as neither poetry nor mathematics can express.’’

Switching from the harmonious society of Samoa to the majestic idyll of Moorea, was, for La Farge and Adams, like ratcheting up an experience of beauty into the disorienting realm of the sublime. Nothing else on their trip, in Fiji, in Australia, in Indonesia, Singapore, or Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), seemed to have a comparable impact.

After his return to America, La Farge made good use of his South Seas experience. He based dozens of subsequent watercolors on photographs and his sketchbook drawings.

Interestingly, as the art historian Henry Adams (who is distantly related to Henry Brooks Adams) writes in a catalog essay for the Addison show, almost all these works retain a provisional, sketch-like quality, as if La Farge were reveling in the difficulties presented by this bright new landscape, with its unfamiliar forms and intense, unaccustomed colors. This lack of finish has led many to think of La Farge as a gifted amateur. But Adams counters that it “should not be viewed as simply a flaw or a weakness.’’ Rather, his lack of resolution was “a way of taking the spectator into his confidence and of establishing a sort of intimacy.’’

I like this notion, as far as it goes. So much about La Farge suggests that his name should figure more prominently in art history. He discovered Japanese prints ahead of Whistler, Degas, and Manet. He blurred the line between the fine and decorative arts half a century before the Bauhaus. And, yes, he went to Tahiti before Gauguin.

But the fact remains that, for all its merits, most of his work falls short of greatness. Does this matter?

Yes, of course, in one sense. But it may be that, in lieu of artistic greatness, La Farge managed the feat, rare among artists, of being a great man. That, anyway, was the verdict of Henry Brooks Adams in a eulogy to his friend: La Farge, he wrote, “needed nothing but his own soul to make him great.’’

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.

JOHN LA FARGE’S SECOND PARADISE: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891

At: Addison Gallery of American Art, Andover. Through March 27. 978-749-4000, www.andover.edu/museums/addison