Conservation Notes: X-Ray of John La Farge’s Paradise Valley

Not long after moving his family to the village of Paradise, near Newport, Rhode Island, in 1865, and during his recovery from a “serious illness” believed by the artist to have been lead poisoning, John La Farge began his two years’ work on the painting that would become known as Paradise Valley. Not exhibited until 1876, it garnered much praise and elicited an intriguing string of comments regarding its sophisticated yet subtle treatment of color, atmosphere, and effect.

A number of critics noted the painting’s elevated horizon line, which prompted a reviewer for the New York Times to note dismissively that “La Farge has a green map which he has the impudence to call a picture and to ask $3,000 for it.”1 The Nation‘s critic wrote: “the view is an unusual one to choose, of course, and its bald features, or approaches to feature, may be called American. In treatment, however, this painting, which owes everything to treatment, is distinctly of the outré-mer. No American master—from Cole and Doughty to Cropsey, Kensett, and Church—ever laid paint on so, or made it express this faint haze and respirable (sic) warmth. Few European painters would have chosen just such a view, perhaps, and it does not seem to us that empty fantasies of such a kind, demanding an enormous tour de force from the painter, and much willingness and a grand effort of sympathy from the spectator, ought to be very often painted, whether in Europe or America; but the merit and influence which make it worth looking at as it hangs, are the gift of other shores and traditions.”2

The valley was not La Farge’s first subject for this particular canvas, however. X-ray photography reveals a seated woman and child, for which his wife, Margaret Mason Perry, and newborn son Bancel, served as models (slide 2).3 The figure of the woman originally was situated prominently in the foreground, yet the details of the setting indicate the artist’s interest in placing his figures in an identifiable landscape. For reasons that remain unclear, La Farge abandoned this idea and painted over the figures to make the valley, actually a pasture for sheep, the painting’s central subject.

In x-ray imaging, the woman’s head reads quite clearly, but the voluminous, flowing dress, which must contain a high proportion of white lead, is extremely radio-opaque and therefore masks the landscape that lies on top. An adjustment to the contour of the figure indicates that it was originally wider along the left side. The low-density outline around the head shows that the sky was at one stage painted around the figure, suggesting that the woman was integral to the landscape and not merely the remnant of an unrelated composition for which the canvas had earlier been used.4

Approximately 22 inches tall and equally wide, the seated figure echoes those in a number of examples by British Pre-Raphaelite painters such as John Everett Millais (1829–96), who often integrated allegorical figures, drawn from live models, into landscapes rendered in brilliant colors with almost scientific exactitude. Other instances of seated figures, female and male, abound in La Farge’s own oeuvre. James Yarnall, in his exhibition catalogue John La Farge in Paradise: The Painter and His Muse, cites as an example a small watercolor titled Mother and Child (c. 1888, William Vareika Fine Arts, Newport). But iterations of a robed, seated figure are prominent in La Farge’s work in this period as well as later. As Yarnall points out, his oil The Muse of Painting (1870, Metropolitan Museum of Art) emphasizes the topography of its setting before Bishop Berkeley’s Rock, where the philosopher (1685–1753) allegedly set up a writing table to compose his Alciphron, or the Minute Philosopher (1732), while the scale of the figure within the composition of his ten-by-twelve-inch oil painting Figure in a Purple Dress: Landscape Background (1863, unlocated) is similar to that in Paradise Valley.5

The process by which La Farge created the work that would become Paradise Valley, with its erasure of the seated figure, reflects the artist’s thinking about the way the mind functions as a storehouse of images. In his Considerations on Painting (1895), La Farge wrote that “in the progress of [an individual’s] life at first there is the instinct, the inherited disposition; then the accumulated memories of images which give him a language for his sentiment. The tendency to translate these by the hand describes the destiny of the painter.”6 In layering his images, La Farge put this formulation into practice.

Although the seated woman has always been invisible to viewers, it surely flashed in La Farge’s mind’s eye when he looked at the completed Paradise Valley. But a number of questions remain. Why did she figure so prominently in the original composition only to be erased from the picture of the valley, the scale of which her presence originally so emphasized? What is the relationship between the seated figure and La Farge’s experiments with the color theories of Michel-Eugéne Chevreul and with the practice of painting en plein air that preoccupied him as he revised the painting to create a very different image? How do these and other aspects of the painting’s composition relate to La Farge’s avid study of Japanese prints during this period? These and other questions raised by this intriguing work invite further investigation.


1“The Fine Arts,” New York Times, April 6, 1876.

2“Fine Arts. The National Academy Exhibition II,” The Nation 22 (April 20, 1876): 268.

3X-ray photographs originally were made in 1933 at the Fogg Art Museum Conservation Lab. The series of x-ray photographs pictured here were made in April 2006 by Frank Zuccari, Conservator at the Art Institute of Chicago. X-ray scans and composite overlay were produced by Bonnie Rimer, Paintings Conservator, Rimer Fine Art Conservation in 2009.

4Examination report prepared by Frank Zuccari, Conservator, The Art Institute of Chicago, April 26, 2006.

5James Yarnall, John La Farge in Paradise: The Painter and His Muse (Newport, Rhode Island: William Vareika Fine Arts, 1995), 102–14.

6John La Farge, Considerations on Painting (New York: MacMillan and Co., 1895), 40–41.