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Bruce Herman


The Unguarded Gaze

On John LaFarge.

The language and thought of art historian Katie Kresser are by turns painterly and poetic, then sharply penetrating in their logic and analytic edge. Unlike the rather dry rhetoric one sometimes encounters in scholarly art historical studies, The Art and Thought of John LaFarge is brimful of surprising turns, metaphysical reaching, and fresh insight into an American artist and a time that are both neglected nowadays —thought passé or irrelevant to our contemporary moment. Kresser creates a striking portrait of LaFarge (1835-1910) and his era, the so-called Gilded Age, and clears the way for a robust reassessment of a very rich period in American art history—one that may have new relevance to our changing international art scene, which—in some quarters, at least—is seeking relief from a century of ceaseless experimentation and transgressive aesthetic shock tactics.

The late 19th century in the United States is known for its economic growth, tumultuous industrial change, and social unrest—and in artistic circles for a paradoxical mixture of uncertainty and academicism; for beauty and high decorative form in painting, architecture, and applied arts but also for stylistic wandering and lack of focus. LaFarge was one of a small number of prominent artists whose work was publicly celebrated and who enjoyed many major commissions for murals and stained glass: for churches, state house buildings, libraries, universities and the like.[1] But the artist also sought in his theoretical and personal work to investigate perception itself, as a kind of early artist-phenomenologist. In her study of the artist, Kresser is able to conjure the atmosphere of the Gilded Age in compelling prose that evokes the polarizing effect of rapid change and growingly sophisticated global awareness—revealing that LaFarge was far from the stereotype often applied to him in modern art circles (where he is sometimes seen as a mere church decorator).

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