NEWPORT, R.I. – James L. Yarnall, associate professor of art at Salve Regina and biographer of John La Farge, will give a talk, “Old Master or Disaster: Revisiting John La Farge,” on Tuesday, April 17 at 6 p.m. in DiStefano Lecture Hall, located in the Antone Academic Center, corner of Lawrence and Leroy avenues.
Free and open to the public, the lecture is being sponsored by McKillop Library, and the departments of art and academic affairs. A reception will follow the talk.
“[La Farge] was a walking contradiction,” Yarnall says, “born into wealth rivaling that of the Vanderbilts but he spent his life shuffling into and out of bankruptcy.”
The American artist, who lived from 1835-1910, 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, Yarnall says. “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.”
Yarnall’s 2012 book, “John La Farge, A Biographical and Critical Study,” was published in February by Ashgate Publishing Company. It 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?” Yarnall asks. “Or was he a bit of a disaster as several early critics opined? And what will his ultimate legacy be?”