Object Highlight | Samoan Taupo Dancing the Siva

Samoan Taupo Dancing the Siva

John La Farge (American, 1835–1910), Samoan Taupo Dancing the Siva, 1909. Cloisonné stained glass. Gift of Oliver LaFarge Hamill (2017-233)

This small but important window is the only work in stained glass by John La Farge with a distinctly South Seas subject. It is part of the artist’s last commission, a series of six similarly sized stained-glass panels for the Merion, Pennsylvania, home of Edward W. Bok, editor of Ladies Home Journal

Comprising allegories of various subjects, the series was inspired by J. Lockwood Kipling, father of Rudyard Kipling. According to Bok’s autobiography: 

"One day [Kipling] enclosed in a letter a drawing which he had made showing Sakia Muni sitting under the bo-tree with two of his disciples, a young man and a young woman, gathered at his feet. It was a piece of exquisite drawing. ‘I like to think of you and your work in this way,’ wrote Mr. Kipling, ‘and so I sketched it for you.’ Bok had the sketch enlarged [and] engaged John La Farge to translate it into glass."

To the image based on Kipling’s sketch, signifying Wisdom, La Farge added five additional scenes, forming a transom over the living-room window of Bok’s home. These included the subject window, representing Dance; La Nouvelle Héloïse (Love of Nature); Apelles (Painting); Pan and Nymph (Music); and Joshua Commanding the Sun to Stand Still (Religion).

Following Bok’s death, the series was divided within the family and three of the windows (Painting, Wisdom, and Music) were eventually remounted in a lancet window installed at the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial in Philadelphia. A fifth (Religion) is at the McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College. The sixth window remains in a private collection.

Samoan Taupo Dancing the Siva is made in a process known as “cloisonné,” a method pioneered in stained glass by La Farge, based on the enamel process of the same name. Instead of using lead cane or copper foil to hold together individual pieces of glass, small chips or shards of glass were fused together in a kiln to form a monolithic piece of glass, joined “by thin filaments of metal fused to the glass and plated on both sides,” as La Farge described his method to Parisian art dealer Siegfried Bing. Successful works by La Farge in this medium are rare; apart from the Bok commission less than half a dozen are known, including parts of the welcome window at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and small portions of the lunette from the Cornelius Vanderbilt II house (ca. 1881), also at the Metropolitan.

The subject, a male Samoan dancer with a palm-frond skirt and lei on a patch of golden earth before a stream, palms, mountains, and evening sky, relates to another work by La Farge at the Museum inspired by (or in this case made during) his 1890–91 South Seas travels: Taupo and Attendants Dancing in Open Air, Iva in Savaii, Samoa (at right). 

Taupo and Attendants Dancing in the Open Air, Iva in Savaii, Samoa

John La Farge (American, 1835–1910), Taupo and Attendants Dancing in the Open Air, Iva in Savaii, Samoa, 1890. Gouache and watercolor. Gift of Frank Jewett Mather Jr. (x1948-1798)