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Event in the Library

Dr. James L. Yarnall,

"Old Master" or Disaster: Revisiting John La Farge

Tues. Apr. 17, 2012
6:00 p.m.
DiStefano Lecture Hall
Antone Academic Center

The Old Philosopher, 1880-82, cloisonné glass He was a walking contradiction. The American artist John La Farge (1835-1910) was born into wealth rivaling that of the Vanderbilts but he spent his life shuffling into and out of bankruptcy. Artistically, he was as innovative and daring as any artist of his time and yet he lacked serious formal training - leading to work that was often technically deficient in obvious ways. As a young man, he was a devout Catholic who impelled his Episcopalian fiancé to convert to his faith, only later to take one of his models as his mistress. It adds up to a "man with two faces," a genius and a cad, a charismatic personality who alternately charmed and alienated his contemporaries, an erudite intellectual who at times wallowed in bathos.

Dr. Yarnall's 2012 book, John La Farge, A Biographical and Critical Study, is the first biography of the artist since 1911. It is also the first biography to tell all - to circumvent the artist's determination to control his image and then go on to document objectively the man's complicated personality and artistic legacy. It is a story of admirable triumphs and shameful falls from grace, of intellectual brilliance coupled with inexplicable mediocrity, of innovative and important artwork blemished by technically challenged artistry. Triumphs followed by defeats, fame mired in scandal, personal and professional relationships disfigured by estrangement and lawsuits.

So was John La Farge our "sole 'Old Master'" as his biographer of choice claimed in 1911? Or was he a bit of a disaster as several early critics opined? And what will his ultimate legacy be?

James L. Yarnall, For the past three decades James L. Yarnall, associate professor of art, has been a leading authority on John La Farge. At the University of Chicago, he wrote both an M.A. thesis and a Ph.D. dissertation on different aspects of La Farge's work. Between 1982 and 2003, he worked closely with the La Farge family on the catalogue raisonné of La Farge's work in all media. His publications on La Farge include dozens of articles and four monographs.