Full Name John Frederick Lewis Joseph La Farge
Born 31 March 1835 in New York (Manhattan), New York
Died 14 November 1910 in Providence, Rhode Island
Buried Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, New York
Elected 3 March 1860 at age twenty-four
Archivist’s Note: Designated an honorary member in 1860. Father of Bancel La Farge, C. Grant La Farge, John La Farge, and Oliver H. P. La Farge; grandfather of Christopher La Farge, L. Bancel La Farge, Oliver La Farge, and Thomas La Farge; great-grandfather of Phyllis La Farge Johnson.
Born in 1835 in New York, the son of a French officer who, after a romantic history, had acquired wealth, John La Farge from childhood was surrounded with all that the culture of his day could give. Educated at home and abroad, he studied painting because his father wished it, and already, thinking of himself only “as amateur or at best middle-man who should explain new variations and expressions to a mere outside public,” he at once showed his originality, his inability to follow a master. This originality was not from lack of wide acquaintance, for he studied all schools and masterpieces, but he was not inclined, as he expressed it, “to consider these various masters as guides in whose hand I should merely put mine, but following my own studies and my own desires, I liked to think that in a more humble way, on a lower level, I was still travelling forward in some road leading in the same direction as theirs.”
He returned to New York and studied law, unwilling to be an artist. Of himself he said: “No one has struggled more against his destiny than I.” He had hoped for “some other mode of life, some other way of satisfying the desire for a contemplation of truth, unbiased, free, and detached.” Other means of expression indeed he had, for his literary gifts were great and his grasp of literary and philosophical values firm, but fate was wiser than his choice and compelled him to give his life to art. Surely a layman, knowing nothing of the technique of art, cannot describe or characterize him, the artistic nature supreme, compelled to find this form of expression but always conscious of its limitations and of the greater something which could in no wise be set down. The person was greater than his art, a personality elusive to us because elusive to himself. Sometimes after loving study of the works of a great man, the personality on acquaintance disappoints, for his best has been all uttered—not so with John La Farge. We who knew him in the intimacy of this Club felt that all expression, art, epigram, philosophical reflection, gave only glimpses of the mystery of himself, inexplicable, inexhaustible. How wide was his experience and how clear his intellectual apprehension! Learned, profoundly versed in the best that genius has given, the great world of letters was completely his own. And with such a setting! Europe and Japan familiar to him as America, at home everywhere, savage life telling its story to him as to almost no one else, and nature in its terror and in its beauty, one with his spirit. All for him was a symbol of the greater fact beyond, his inclusive gesture indicating all, as symbolic of the greater truth that can be faintly expressed. Religion to him could be fully put in no doctrine and summed up in no art, for it has its dwelling in the emotions, in reverence, awe, adoration, dependence—the feeling for the greatest, for that which finds only partial revelation at best and truest.
Withal, in his intercourse with us lesser men, he was without assumption and almost childlike, seeming to look to us for help, so conscious was he that the vast beyond had more than he could see, so eager was he to know what other eyes had seen, and other minds had learned.
He joined The Century in 1860 and with his death our roll has no name left upon its list of honorary members. Much as The Century was to him, he gave it more than it could give, and in its long history past, The Century has no greater name, none more honored, none more enshrined in memory than this—John La Farge.
George William Knox
1911 Century Association Yearbook