On August 23, 1890, the painter John La Farge and the historian Henry Adams boarded the steamer Zealandia in San Francisco and set forth for the South Seas. Hawaii, the first landfall of the two voyagers, proved a disappointment. In Samoa, however, they discovered the unspoiled primitivism they sought. The very evening of their arrival they were treated to the Siva dance, performed by five native girls, naked to the waist, whose skin, covered with coconut oil, glistened in the firelight against a background of moving shadows. "La Farge's spectacles quivered with emotion," Adams noted. "No future experience, short of being eaten, will ever make us feel so new again." Another Siva, performed by men, is the subject of this watercolor. The picture records a dance performed at the village of Iva, on the island of Savaii, on October 27, 1890.
For most of their stay in Samoa, La Farge and Adams stayed at another native village, Vaiala, on the island of Upolu. Vaiala was the residence of the two most powerful native chiefs, Mata-afa and Malietoa, and was also located near the home of the novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, who for reasons of health had moved to Polynesia. From October 24 to November 1, 1890, however, La Farge and Adams went on a malanga, or boat journey, with Seumanu, chief of Vaiala, and some fifty other natives. They traveled from village to village and were entertained with speeches, ceremonial presentations of food, and native dances. Their reception at Iva (a village adjacent to Sapapalii, the original home of the powerful chief Mali-etoa) was perhaps the climax of their trip. "Whatever we came to Samoa for," Adams noted, "we got it this time."
The morning after their arrival in Iva, La Farge and Adams lounged and sketched. At about two o'clock, however, the festivities began. First they were presented with a military review and sham battle that lasted about three hours and was performed by some two hundred men decorated with leaves, feathers, and flowers and armed with clubs, bush-knives, and Snyder rifles. Next came speechmaking and the ceremonial presentation of gifts of food to the visitors yams, taros, and several squealing pigs, which were later slaughtered and roasted.
Finally came the dancing, the subject of this watercolor, which was broken off briefly for feasting and then resumed until late into the night. Adams described the scene in a letter to his intimate confidante, Elizabeth Cameron : "The sun set with an afterglow like an extravagant painting; the moon rose with a full flood of violet light; and we started in for a new Siva at eight o'clock with only the light of the fire, fed by dry palm leaves, to show the dancers." La Farge, in his book Reminiscences of the South Seas, noted that the chant of the dancers was "undeniably a war song" and that each of the performers represented some individual neighboring village. At the bottom of the watercolor La Farge inscribed the names of five of the six performers: Samuelu, Aolele, Tulagono, Aotoa, and Apslu.
The Siva dance preoccupied La Farge during his stay in Samoa and was the source of his greatest efforts and his greatest frustrations. When he tried to draw the dance in motion, the lines "flowed out again like water before I could fix them." He found himself equally dissatisfied when he attempted, using both sketches and photographs as aids, to pose models in the successive motions of the dance. "The drawings and paintings I have made are so stupid," he declared, "from their freezing into attitudes the beauties that are made of sequence." As he noted dispiritedly of this composition, "You will see at once that the work is either carried too far, or not far enough."
Carnegie Institute's watercolor is La Farge's second version of this subject and replicates a work in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. La Farge completed the Gardner Museum's watercolor in his native hut in Vaiala on December 19, 1890, several months after witnessing the dance itself. In his account of the dances at Iva, Adams noted, "During the show I toiled over my Kodak, and took thirty or forty views, none of which I expect to find successful, but which, even if only one turns out well, may help La Farge paint a Siva picture." La Farge evidently based his watercolor partly on Adam's photographs, as well as on sketches he had made at the time. After completing the piece, he sent it directly to his son Bancel in New York, including at the top of the work a long inscription that functioned simultaneously as a letter to Bancel, an aide memoire, and the rough draft of a South Sea travelogue.
La Farge did not intend to sell his sketch until he had used it as the basis for a larger painting. Isabella Stewart Gardner, however, during a visit to the painter's studio in January 1892, snatched it up without La Farge's permission and carried it off. She seems later to have paid him, but in a letter La Farge wrote her, on October 19, 1890, he expressed disappointment that she had refused to lend the work back to him "as was agreed between us" for use in composing his larger work. In the same letter La Farge also begged Mrs. Gardner at least to lend the watercolor to an exhibition to be held in Paris the following spring.
Presumably, Mrs. Gardner did eventually lend La Farge his watercolor, at which time he must have made the replica in Carnegie Institute. The copy follows the first version almost precisely but shows less hesitation in drawing and is somewhat more vigorous in color. It includes the names of the dancers at the bottom. It does not, however, repeat the long inscription at the top, although this was printed verbatim in the catalogue of La Farge's 1895 exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York. La Farge did begin work on a large oil painting of this subject, seven by five feet in size, but it remained incomplete at the time of his death. A typed letter from Grace Edith Barnes, the executrix of La Farge's estate, to R. C. Vose, dated January 15, 1912, mentions a large oil version of the picture.
It is unclear whether La Farge included the Gardner Museum's or Carnegie Institute's version of this work in his 1895 exhibition at the Durand-Ruel Gallery in New York and at a subsequent showing at the Champs-de-Mars in Paris. Carnegie Institute's version, however, is the one La Farge used to illustrate his writings on Samoa. It was first reproduced in Scribner's in 1901 and later was included in La Farge's book Reminiscences of the South Seas, published in 1911, the year after the artist's death. Carnegie Institute purchased the work in 1917 from the well-known New York art dealer William Macbeth.
Despite the artist's own reservations, La Farge's South Sea watercolors proved extremely popular when he first exhibited them. They sold very rapidly, even though their prices, at three hundred to five hundred dollars apiece, were exceptionally high for the period. When La Farge's exhibition of watercolors opened in New York in early 1895, the catalogue listed one hundred forty-five South Sea pictures. By February 1897, however, by which time the show had traveled to both Cleveland and Chicago, only thirty-seven remained unsold. Critical reviews of the South Sea works were also generally complimentary, often noting the coloration of the pieces, whose brilliance was matched in American art of this period only by Winslow Homer's tropical watercolors.
Posterity has generally agreed with Henry Adams's verdict that La Farge's South Sea watercolors, while at times awkward in drawing and labored in execution, are superior to those he executed in Japan and are the freshest and most spontaneous works of his later career. Though they seldom equaled the formal strength of the Tahitian paintings of Gauguin, they are among the finest South Sea paintings made by anyone in the nineteenth century, and they provide a colorful and vivid record of an ancient way of life that was already on the verge of extinction.