Best known for his major projects in mural painting and stained glass, particularly the interior design of Trinity Church in Boston, John La Farge also painted an important series of floral still lifes in oil in the 1860s. La Farge grew up in a cosmopolitan, French-speaking household, and in 1856 he toured the museums of Europe, spending a few weeks working in Thomas Couture’s studio. He decided to become an artist in 1859 and studied with William Morris Hunt in Newport, Rhode Island. Over the next decade La Farge painted lyrical still lifes of flowers in vases, hanging wreaths, and water lilies and other flowers in their natural settings. His still lifes are poetic and generalized rather than botanically accurate, evoking a mood and expressing emotion. Through his own success and that of his pupils, as well as other artists who were influenced by his work, La Farge was largely responsible for the development of the poetic flower composition in American still-life painting.
Vase of Flowers is one of the most ambiguous and mysterious of La Farge’s floral paintings. A vase of roses, geraniums, and other pink and red flowers is set off-center on a tabletop in a shallow space. The background may be a Japanese screen or an open window, as in many of the artist’s early still lifes. It has been suggested that the vase may be a pi t’ung, a Chinese porcelain vessel for holding the brushes of artists and calligraphers, thus accounting for its distinctive shape. Fascinated by Asian art and an early collector of Japanese prints, La Farge also had a large collection of Chinese and Japanese ceramics. In addition, his wife was the great niece of Matthew Perry, who had opened Japan to Western trade in 1854.