Lot 317
  • 317

JOHN LA FARGE | Dawn Comes on the Edge of Night

500,000 - 700,000 USD
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  • John La Farge
  • Dawn Comes on the Edge of Night
  • leaded acid-etched flashed and opalescent glass, fired and cold paintwith select glass tiles plated on the reverse
  • principal window:  51 1/8  x 54 in. (129.9 x 137.2 cm), including frametitle panel:  20 3/4  x 54 1/4  in. (52.7 x 137.8 cm), including frameupper and lower decorative friezes: 3 7/8  x 54 1/4  in. (9.8 x 137.8 cm)
  • 1903
together with the original title panel inscribed DAWN and two upper and lower decorative friezes (not illustrated)


Commissioned directly from the artist by Frank Lusk Babbott, Brooklyn, New York, 1903
Estate of Frank Lusk Babbott, Brooklyn, New York, 1933
Gift from the above to Packer Collegiate Institute, Brooklyn, New York, 1934
Acquired from the above by Sean M. McNally, Ridgewood, New Jersey, 1986
Acquired from the above by the present owners, 1994


John La Farge, National Museum of American Art, Washington, D.C., July 10-October 12, 1987, The Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh, November 7, 1987-January 3, 1988, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, February 24-April 24, 1988
John La Farge: An American Master (1835-1910), William Vareika Fine Arts, Newport, Rhode Island, July 14-September 30, 1989


"Babbott Stained Glass Window Gift to Packer," Brooklyn Daily Eagle, New York, September 16, 1934, p. A22 (for an announcement of the gift of the present lot to Packer Collegiate Institute)
"Packer Institute Wins LaFarge Stained Window," Brooklyn Eagle, New York, September 16, 1934, p. A7 (for an announcement of the gift of the present lot to Packer Collegiate Institute)
Henry A. La Farge, Catalogue Raisonne of the Works of John La Farge, unpublished manuscript, 1965-1998, Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, G1903.1
H. Barbara Weinberg, The Decorative Work of John La Farge, New York, 1977, p. 416 (for the present lot and the crayon and oil paint studies from the collection of the Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, MA, illustrated)
James L. Sturm, Stained Glass from Medieval Times to the Present: Treasures to Be Seen in New York, New York, 1982, p. 108 (for the present lot illustrated)
Helene Weis, "A Reivew of James L. Sturm's Book: 'Stained Glass from Medieval Times to the Present,'" Stained Glass, vol. 78, no. 1, 1983, p. 64 (for the present lot illustrated)
John La Farge: An American Master, exh. cat., William Vareika Fine Arts, Newport, Rhode Island, 1989, pl. 45 (for the present lot illustrated)
Elizabeth Hodermarsky, John La Farge's Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891, exh. cat., Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, 2010, p. 164 (for the present lot and the crayon study illustrated)


Overall very good condition. “Dawn Comes on the Edge of Night” is a masterwork within John La Farge’s body of work, showcasing his incredible mastery of color, which displays with even greater richness and depth of color when viewed firsthand compared to the printed catalogue illustration. The window is executed in a brilliant range of pinks, blues, purples and greens, which both blend artistically in some areas and contrast with incredible vibrancy in other areas, capturing the warmth and energy of the rising sun over the sea and creating an incredible sense of pictorial depth. The sky is comprised of deep, saturated cobalt, sapphire, cerulean, and stormy grey-blues to portray the night on the right of the composition. The left of the composition, where Dawn lifts her veil, is comprised of bright and luscious pinks, magentas and violets, which faithfully evoke the rays of the rising sun. Dawn’s torso is painted in soft tones of pink, mauve and brown to suggest the softness of her flesh and drapery. Her garment, which swirls around her body from the waist down, is articulated in a multitude of individually cut pieces of glass in a full spectrum of purple tones, including deep violet, amethyst, indigo, and periwinkle. The lower portion of the composition depicts the see in a deep blue-greens with lighter green highlights, which suggest cresting waves. The window was sensitively cleaned and stabilized by a professional stained glass conservator upon its removal from the Packer Collegiate Institute, including stabilization to hairline cracks in the glass, some re-leading, and the application of finns on the reverse to reinforce the lead caming and prevent bowing and sagging. All of the glass appears to be original and was worked in a number of different techniques, including acid etching, fired and cold painting, and plating (on the reverse) to create the stunning light effects that distinguish “Dawn Comes on the Edge of Night.” The panel is plated in layers on the reverse up to three layers deep. The outer amber geometric border is a later addition to the window, possibly added when the window was installed at Packer Collegiate Institute. As is typical of La Farge’s windows from this period, the window is extensively painted with both fired and cold paint throughout the figure and background. The painted surfaces with some minor wear, craquelure, and occasional flaking consistent with the natural aging of the material. The torso with a few faint diagonal lines through the painted drapery and face which are inherent in the surface texture of the glass. The painted surfaces are in very good condition with select areas of the window which appear to have been sensitively in-painted at some point in the history of the piece. The glass with some scattered light surface soiling, traces of putty, and a few isolated traces of old remnants of clear adhesive tape (used in the conservation process, only visible upon close inspection), not visually detractive. The window is presently installed in a modern exterior metal frame which is in very good condition. This metal frame is non-obtrusive and very minimalist in design and aids in the further stabilization of the window. This window is offered together with (1) the original leaded glass title panel inscribed “Dawn”, (2) the two original upper and lower decorative “egg and dart” friezes, and (3) a pencil and watercolor study of the planned window configuration by John La Farge. The title panel, which was used for ventilation in the original installation of this window at the residence of Frank Lusk Babbott in Brooklyn, New York, is in good condition with some scattered hairline cracks, minor instances of corrosion to the leadwork, and traces of putty and light surface soiling to the contours adjacent to the cames. The center of the panel is bowing slightly, resulting in some minor separation between the glass and caming above the lettering of the title. The title panel retains its original exterior metal frame, which presents with surface soiling, oxidation, and discolorations consistent with age. The two “egg and dart” friezes are in very good condition, with light surface soiling. The perimeter caming of each frieze has been replaced due to the separation of the friezes from the window. The same amber geometric border around the main figural panel was also added around each of the friezes. A magnificent, seminal work by John La Farge.
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

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.