John LaFarge’s use of Rabatment

John La Farge, Flowers in a Persian Porcelain Water Bowl, 1861

This past summer, I had picked up at a used bookstore a catalog of La Farge’s work from the Carnegie Museum of Art, 1987. La Farge lived from 1835 to 1910 and is best known for his mural work and his innovations in the art of stained glass. As the creator of both the mural and the surrounding stained glass windows, he developed a unity of presentation in his architectural work. He was one of the first Americans to promote Japonism as an artistic method. He also conducted intense experiments on color through his stained glass windows developing opalescent glass in the process.

Because he was active in the late 19th century, his style as well as his ability to construct an image are based on solid 19th century principles. I was not surprised to read in the footnotes of John Adams essay, The Mind of John La Farge, that he used rabatment to construct his images. La Farge had studied in Paris and had experienced Puvis de Chavannes murals first hand which apply rabatment to create unity of the image within the architecture of a room or building. Many of La Farge’s best known works emanate an architectural model or feeling under the surface.

The art historian and critic, Barbara Novak dissected La Farge’s painting, Flowers in a Persian Porcelain Water Bowl, 1861 using rabatment. I would like to examine her choices in this painting.

Barbara Novak’s use of rabatment on La Farge’s image

If we examine Novak’s interpretation, she begins in the traditional way of taking the short side of the canvas and rotating it on to the long side to create the square within the composition. This bottom edge of the square lies along the edge of the sill molding below the top edge. Next, Novak finds the middle, horizontally and vertically within the upper rabatment square. The top edge of the sill is found by drawing a line between the intersecting points of: the diagonals of the lower rabatment square and the diagonals from this lower rabatment square to the bottom center point(this forms a triangle with its apex at the bottom center).

All of these lines are typical. It is really her construction after this point that becomes more vague. Novak subdivides these internal rectangles with what I feel is not really necessary or accurate. I don’t believe La Farge used many of these lines. But Novak disregards some larger and more dominant lines that I feel La Farge used.

Let’s look at my interpretation.

Judith Reeve’s interpretation

I have begun in the same way as Novak, creating the over-lapping rabatment squares. I have also indicated the diagonals of each rabatment square. These diagonals create the powerful diamond in the center. This square on its end is the most important factor in this composition. One can see how La Farge uses the central flower, presented in the light, to hold the composition. He follows this shape directly- the light in this area follows the bottom triangular vertice of this diamond, the shadow lying outside this shape. Also, the composition of the light on the arrangement of flowers falls within the larger triangle created by lines from the top central mid-point to the lower corners of the canvas. The line of trees in the background are created by the diagonal of the reciprocal (the rectangle that remains outside of a rabatment square).

The one thing I found interesting about Novak’s interpretation are the arcs created from certain points. This is not so typical, but had been done in certain 19th century images. I at first thought that these might be part of Dynamic Symmetry’s root 5. But I found that not to be true. So, let’s look at these arcs. Novak used the center point that rests on the edge of the top sill to swing her arc. But I used the central point at the bottom of the upper rabatment square, which La Farge would be more apt to use since this is a solid construction line. This is the larger arc in my interpretation.

The smaller circle, in my version, tries to create the arc within the triangle that emanates from the top central point to the lower corners; this circle also meets with the apex of the lower rabatment square diagonals (upside down triangular shape). But I feel even in this I might be pushing the envelope. I am not saying that La Farge could not have used this complete circle in the composition, as in fact it was used in the 19th century, but it seems rather unlikely in this particular circumstance. In one regard, this smaller circle could have been used to emphasize the ‘S’ curve that begins at the treeline, follows the road, curves around the right side of the flowers (following the circular arc and the crease in the drape), and ending at the bottom center. This might just be implied as a visual rhythm to help the eye travel the entire composition and may not rely on the circle.

When one starts to examine a composition, it is important to remember that it is easy to construct all sorts of things on top of an already completed image. But I try to go about it as if I was setting up an underlying structure on which the image will later be added. So following the rules of construction pretty intently is the best way to go. Artists will always break the rules to create the image that they desire, but they are using this form of rabatment in order to solidify their expression and give it a greater feeling of form. Otherwise, why would they have bothered to use such a technique anyway.