Dawn Comes on the Edge of Night by John La Farge
By Julie Sloan
Dawn Comes on the Edge of Night is a true masterpiece of John La Farge’s stained-glass art. The nearly life-size female allegorical figure became a staple of the artist’s work in the last two decades of his life, with such tours de force as Welcome (1909) in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Spring (1901-02) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Dawn presents a daring figural form, a woman leaning into the oncoming light, her garments conforming to her body in the wind. The posture is unusually striking, made more so by the exquisite prismatic palette. The only other window with an equally unusual pose in his work may be Fortune (1900) in the Frick Building in Pittsburgh.
The window was commissioned by Frank Lusk Babbott (1854-1933), a New York businessman and art collector, in 1903 for the staircase of his Brooklyn home. Babbott’s wife, Lydia Richardson Pratt (1858-1904), was the daughter of Charles Pratt, founder of Pratt Institute. Her brothers, Frederic Bayley Pratt (1865-1945) and Herbert Lee Pratt (1871-1945), were both patrons of La Farge’s stained-glass. Though it is not known how Babbott came to commission the window, he clearly knew of La Farge from art circles and the windows his brothers-in-law had purchased around the same time. Upon his death, most of Babbott’s great art collection was donated to the Brooklyn Museum (where he had served on the Governing Committee) including a group of stained-glass pieces. He was also president of the board of trustees of Packer Collegiate Institute from 1911 until his death. His children donated Dawn to the school, where it was installed until 1986, when it was purchased by a private collector.
The design of the window is based on an 1883 black-crayon sketch for a mural intended for the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion in Manhattan. It was never used in that house (a different version of the dawn subject was selected), but La Farge created an oil painting of it in 1899, which was exhibited in Boston and Pittsburgh shortly afterward and purchased by a Boston collector. La Farge painted it a third time, a watercolor executed in 1903 as a preparation drawing for the window. The four versions are remarkably similar, with identical drapery folds, cloud formations, and vague land or water on which the figure stands. The artist copyrighted the design in April 1903, describing it as “the figure of a woman leaning or floating, sea and sky in landscape.”
It is impossible to know whether La Farge had hoped to execute the figure in glass when he first sketched it in 1883. If he tried, the window would have been very different. In the early 1880s, opalescent glass as a material was in its infancy, as was La Farge’s experience with it as a medium. By the time Dawn was created, both the glass and La Farge’s craftsmanship had matured. La Farge first “discovered” opalescent glass many years earlier in 1876, when he noticed how light was refracted through milk-glass objects on his dressing table in all the hues of the rainbow, like an opal gemstone. This translucent opaline glass had been used for vessels and other objects since at least the 1830s, but it was not made in flat sheets for windows. He ventured to flint-glass manufacturers in Brooklyn to see if they could or would make flat glass for him. They did so, and he made his first opalescent window in 1879. The medium became hugely popular almost overnight (thanks in part to Louis Comfort Tiffany’s efforts in the same vein at the same time). Windows of this early period of his work are characterized by large pieces of glass, many layers, a wide array of unusual pieces, and a great deal of paint.
The glass manufacturing field changed in the mid-1880s when the center of the glass-making industry moved from the east coast to the Midwest. New opalescent-glass factories standardized the colors of glass, broadening it to produce thousands of repeatable shades. La Farge now had an unlimited supply of the material, which he said was the same as having “pigments in one’s palette,” thus diminishing the need for extensive plating and painting, ushering in his late style, of which Dawn is an exceptional example. Now, every tint, hue, shadow, midtone, and highlight could be achieved in individual pieces surrounded by a tiny lead came. Hundreds of minute pieces of glass, some no more than 3/16 inch wide, made up the drapery of dramatic, realistic figures drawn in the style of the French Academic Salon painters. However, even with these advancements in glass, La Farge (unlike Tiffany) remained unopposed to using glass- and oil-paints if it furthered his artistry, as it clearly did in the case of Dawn. From the waist up, Dawn is painted on two pieces of glass on the obverse side, enormous in size with exquisite detail, executed in both fired and unfired (called cold) paint. To add further modeling and chiaroscuro, La Farge added large, etched, flashed-glass plates to the reverse surface of the window.
The precise configuration of the window in Babbott’s house is not known. What survives today includes the figural panel, two egg-and-dart borders, and a decorative panel with the name of the figure. Two sketches of the window’s layout survive. One, with notes in La Farge’s hand offers some insight into the artist’s planning. It shows the name panel above the figural panel, with another tall panel at the bottom that was to have a date in Roman numerals. At each side of the window are shown wide, simple, green and yellow architectonic borders that are crossed out on one side. La Farge’s notes at the bottom of the drawing relate to glass colors in various locations, directing “Mr. Wright” (his chief stained-glass foreman) to use whatever colors “he likes,” indicating La Farge’s trust in Wright to frame his window in colors that would enhance it. The second sketch shows a smaller portion of the window, setting the figure panel (which is not shown) within a frame of Ionic columns with a Greek-key and denticulated entablature. The name panel and egg-and-dart bands are not shown. This window design configuration was realized for La Farge’s Fortune window at the Frick Building in Pittsburgh.
La Farge’s late windows are stunning examples of the glaziers’ art and demonstrate the artist’s remarkable color sense and illusionistic draftsmanship. Dawn Comes on the Edge of Night is one of his finest windows, a gorgeous, dramatic figure in a brilliant and ethereal landscape to stun and awe its viewers.
–JULIE L. SLOAN, Stained-Glass Consultant, North Adams, MA
A Symbolist Masterpiece by John La Farge
By Henry Adams
John La Farge was perhaps the most versatile figure in the history of American art. He produced remarkable floral paintings and plein-air landscapes and was the first known 19th Century artist to collect Japanese prints and make use of Japanese effects in his own work. He produced the first major American mural program at Trinity Church in Boston in 1876 and invented the new medium of opalescent stained glass. His luminous watercolors from his travels in Japan and the islands of the South Seas captivated viewers, and he wrote several notable books on the history and psychology of art.
In an age when most Americans were Anglo-Saxon and somewhat insular, La Farge was French and Roman Catholic, and stood out as cosmopolitan and exotic. A celebrated conversationalist, and one of the most charismatic personalities of his age, he served as guide and inspiration for many of the leading artists and writers of his time, including Henry James, Henry Adams, H.H. Richardson, Elihu Vedder, Augustus St. Gaudens, and Winslow Homer. The novelist, Henry James, who befriended him in Newport, later described him as “quite the most interesting person we knew,” and declared that he had never encountered “a subtler mind or a more generously wasteful passion, in other words a sincerer one, addressed to the problems of the designer and painter.”
In La Farge’s art, the historian Henry Adams particularly singled out the stained glass, which he considered one of the great achievements of the age, and which inspired him to write one of his most notable books, Mont St. Michel and Chartres. As Adams wrote: “La Farge’s mind was opaline with infinite shades and refractions of light and with color toned down to the finest gradations. In glass it was insubordinate; it was renaissance; it asserted his personal fore with depth and vehemence of tone never before seen. He seemed bent on crushing rivalry.” The artistic supremacy of his work was hailed not only in America but Europe. In 1889 he received the French Legion of Honor for his work in stained glass. In 1895 the English art-writer Cecilia Waern declared in Studio International: “Mr. La Farge’s work in glass cannot be ranked too high... It is, to my mind, one of the greatest artistic utterance of the age, if not of all ages.”
While La Farge designed large numbers of stained glass windows, those such as Dawn, on which he lavished personal attention, working closely with his foreman Thomas Wright to select the individual pieces of glass, are extremely rare, amounting to no more than one or two dozen. The window can be securely dated to 1903, the year it was commissioned by Frank Lusk Babbott, a New York businessman, for the staircase of his Brooklyn residence. The date of the original design, however, poses interesting questions. There is an extremely finished drawing for the window by La Farge in the Fogg Art Museum. This carries an inscription on the verso in La Farge’s hand stating that it is a “Study for one of the Vanderbilt panels,” but also carries an inscription on the recto, at the lower left, stating “Copyright by John La Farge 1903.” The artist’s grandson, Henry La Farge, believed that the drawing was made in 1880 and the inscription indicating copyright was added later. Its careful manner of execution, however, fits much better with studies La Farge made for stained glass windows of the period around 1900. Quite possibly La Farge did make some sort of tentative sketch of Dawn for the watercolor room of the house of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, in New York, although no such design was actually included in the room. One could also speculate that the drawing was conceived in 1903 for the express purpose of translating it into the present window—the era during which La Farge and his peers, such as Elihu Vedder and Augustus St. Gaudens, were beginning to explore symbolism in their work.
The distinction between the sort of “classical allegories” of old master painters and the “Symbolism” of the later 19th Century is subtle, but essentially consists of a more flowing quality in the handling of elements like sky, water, and drapery, which merge into pure abstraction and seem to embody the forces of nature. Dawn presents the sunrise in the guise of a golden, luminous female figure, who lifts her veil to illuminate the sky and her surroundings. The figure ascends from the water as if it were a cloud of mist materializing into human form. It feels completely “alive” and yet mysterious. The timelessness and grandeur of the image results from its roots in antiquity. The general motif of a figure lifting drapery to expose her face can be traced back to the Ara Pacis (13 BC) in Rome, where the figures of Tellus (Earth), Venus and Peace are framed by drapery in a similar fashion. Such draped figures were popular in English art, for example in John William Waterhouse’s painting Boreas (1903; private collection) and in French art as well, an example being Sappho Leaping into the Sea from the Leucadian Promontory (1849; Gare D’Orsay, Paris) by Theodore Chasseriau, an artist La Farge greatly admired. The subject is further enhanced by the triumph of executing such complex drapery in stained glass. La Farge used colored pieces of glass, not black paint alone, to articulate the gentle folds and shadows of the fabric, explaining: “The shadows of things are also colors, and in such a material as glass, which gives and full intensity of lights, and which allows one, in fact, to paint with light, the proper gradation and representation of shading is by other colors of glass to represent the shadows.”
In addition, the sloping angle of the figure may have been inspired by Guido Reni’s famous Aurora (1614; Pallazzo Pallavicini-Rospigliosa, Rome), in which the sun’s chariot is led by a figure of Dawn, whose figure is shown at a 45-degee angle. It is a posture which La Farge explored for other subjects as well: an unrealized sketch by the artist for a window titled Study for “Autumn” (n.d., Art Institute of Chicago) shows a similarly draped female figure bent a the waist with arms outstretched to sprinkle leaves.
The underlying theme of a merger between man and nature, and of a sort of cosmic, Symbolist harmony between man and the universe, is wonderfully expressed through the fashion in which the colors of the figure blend with those of the sky and background. As Henry La Farge has written: “The painted version has none of the high-keyed color of this window, which helps one realize to what extent glass was the ideal medium for the subject. The almost blinding luminosity of the figure against the harsh pink and deep blue of the sky and the pungent green of the sea, with its speckled reflections in the lower folds of the dress, create a dramatic play of light which finds it perfect expression in the pure color of stained glass.”
Above all, the rich, glowing color lifts the conception into a strange and magical expressive realm. You do not just look at a stained glass window,” John La Farge once declared. “You must essentially meditate before it, you must live into it, pass into it.”
Henry Adams is the Ruth Coulter Heede Professor of Art History at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He was the curator and lead author in 1987 for the exhibition John La Farge, and is author of over 400 publications in the American field.