Born in New York in 1835, the eldest son of French émigrés, John La Farge grew up in an atmosphere of wealth, social refinement, and diverse cultural influences. Throughout his career he maintained friendships with leading European and American writers and intellectuals, and he played an important role in expanding the parameters of American art. Drawing on his knowledge of European culture as well as exotic locales like Japan and Polynesia, he created new effects in such varied media as easel painting, watercolor, mural decoration, and stained glass. Widely respected in his lifetime, La Farge served on the jury of the Carnegie International exhibition in 1897, 1901, and 1903 and was honored by an exhibition of his work at Carnegie Institute in 1901.
In A History of American Painting Sadakichi Hartmann cited La Farge, along with Howard Pyle, as one of the two key figures in the creation of a "serious" school of American illustration. Although the conjunction of names is somewhat odd, since La Farge's work preceded that of Pyle by some thirty years, both figures helped move American illustration from literal-minded representation of a text toward freer and more artistic modes of treatment. La Farge himself summed up his ideas about illustration in a letter of January 22, 1860, to his fiancée, Margaret Perry:
Let me tell you, Dear, that my ideas of illustrations are not common ones. I
would no more think myself bound to represent the exact picture conveyed by
the poet, than I would think of rivalling him. The artist is at a
disadvantage, he has lines and the other has words. If the words were weak
the illustrations might be superior - if not so the picture is complete. The
same happens in any literal description of a picture no description can
equal the picture itself. The best are commentaries or glosses. The artist
should illustrate by a poem of his own as the writer does, by music of his
own as musicians do. An example. The lines of Keats upon Chapman's Homer.
That, love, is the only way, I believe - I need not reason it.