- Historic Sites
In Search Of Innocence
Henry Adams and John LaFarge in the South Seas
June 1970 | Volume 21, Issue 4
Yet The Memoirs of Arii Taimai nonetheless mark an important step in Adams’ career. He had gone, by 1890, as far as he was going as a historian in the conventional sense. His great work on Jefferson and Madison was history at its most intellectually pure. The author stands aside and lets the documents tell the story, from which a very few precious rules may be deduced. But in the South Seas he had tried to leave the intellect for simplicity, for instinct. He had sought peace and found ennui. Even the unspoiled natives, in the long run, palled. He,had to return, in Papeete, to his profession, and he had to try it with a new twist, for how else could Tahitian history be done? And if The Memoirs were a bore, was it altogether his fault? Might it not be in the subject? Suppose he were to happen upon a subject that required not only the imagination of the man who had sat on the floor with the old queen of Tahiti as she intoned the poems of her family tradition, but also the industry of the devoted scholar who had pored through archives of European foreign offices? Suppose he were to find a subject, in short, that required a great artist as well as a great historian?
He was to find such a one a few years hence in the Gothic cathedrals of France. Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres is an extraordinary tour de force of the imagination, a vivid invocation of the spirit and force of the twelfth century that may be longer read than any of Adams’ other books. It has always been a difficult volume for librarians to classify. Is it history or travel or criticism or theology or even fiction? But its language shimmers with some of the magic blue of the windows of the cathedral which forms its principal topic. One day, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gazing at the brilliant Ia Orana Maria , I was struck by the fact that the Virgin of Chartres, like the Virgin of Paul Gauguin, may owe something to the colors and legends of the South Seas.
Gauguin arrived in Tahiti a few days after Adams and LaFarge had left, in time to witness the funeral of King Pomare. It is probably just as well that they did not meet. The American travellers detested European settlers, and a European settler who drank to excess and lived publicly with a native woman would have seemed the acme of Western corruption. If Adams had considered Stevenson a Bohemian, Gauguin would have been beyond the pale. Nor would LaFarge have liked Gauguin’s painting. Many years later, when he and Adams were old men and Gauguin was dead, LaFarge wrote to his former travelling companion about an illustrated catalogue of a Gauguin show in Paris. He informed Adams that the “mad Frenchman” had been in Tahiti shortly after their visit and had actually met some of their friends on the island. It is disappointing to have to relate that LaFarge then went on to say that Gauguin’s paintings were sorry failures, desperate efforts to catch the attention of a novelty-hunting; public.
It has been said that Gauguin, with his brilliant colors and primitive figures, caught the essential atmosphere of the islands that both Adams and LaFarge missed. But what he really did was to create a Polynesia of his own that millions of his admirers now regard as the true one. Gauguin came to Tahiti nai’vely in search of an island paradise, an unspoiled Arcadia, but he found and recognized in Papeete precisely what Adams had found and recognized. Only on canvas could he realize his dream. He was under no illusions about what he was doing. His red seas and blue dogs were perfectly deliberate. He wanted painting to stand independent of what it purported to represent and not to be a branch of sculpture. He said that the kind of people who wanted exact reproduction would have to wait for the invention of a color camera. They have, and they are quite content!
Of the brilliant four who were in the Polynesian islands in 1891—Adams, Stevenson, Gauguin, and LaFarge—the first three, like most artists, brought more with them than what they were to take out. The subjective experiences of the historian, of the storyteller, and of the postimpressionist might have been very much the same in other parts of the globe. Polynesia simply happened to be the stage of one aspect of their development. But in LaFarge’s work I feel a more objective effort to reproduce the islands than the others may have made.
His stubborn imagination fixed them in a classic atmosphere that seemed proof against disillusionment. To him the blues and greens were painted in lines of Homer, guessed at by Titian, and the long sway and cadence of the surf had the music of the Odyssey. The Samoan youngster with a red hibiscus fastened in his hair by a grassy knot was a Bacchus of Tintoretto. LaFarge prided himself on having an affinity with a remoter ancestry of man and on being better able than other Westerners to understand the islanders.
But if his paintings have a charm that may be special and Polynesian, they are nevertheless romantic. They tell us quite as much of John LaFarge as they do of the South Seas. Perhaps it is because he insisted that the paradise still existed which Gauguin knew was dead. And perhaps this very insistence is the one good thing that came out of the meeting of East and West. The dream of innocence, abided in or awoken from, may still be a mighty source of inspiration.