One of the speakers at last year’s Montserrat Encaustic conference was Kate Smith, a conservator who had cleaned the encaustic murals in Boston’s Trinity Church. I stayed a few days after this year’s conference to visit the church and see the murals first hand with Francisco Benitez who shares with me an interest in the history of encaustic.
The murals were painted by John LaFarge, an American painter and decorator, in 1876-77. LaFarge was the personal choice of Henry Hobson Richardson, the church’s architect, to do the murals in spite of the fact that he had never painted on a large scale before. But La Farge had by that time a long association with encaustic having been introduced to it 20 years earlier in Brussels by Henry Le Strange. Le Strange had used encaustic in 1855 to decorate the west tower ceiling of Ely Cathedral in England. La Farge began to use encaustic in 1863, initially for easel paintings, and it became his preferred medium for the rest of his career.
Work on the Trinity Church murals was begun in late 1876 and continued through the bitter winter weather in the unheated and unfinished church, often competing with masons and other workers for use of the scaffolding.
The type of encaustic that La Farge used and his reason for using it were different from how encaustic is generally thought of today. In his previous work, he combined wax and oil. Bu the common practice for encaustic mural work was to use colored sticks of beeswax and resin (usually copal, a very hard resin, or elemi, a soft sticky resin) that were melted into a heated solvent, either turpentine or oil of spike lavender. Venice turpentine was sometimes also added. The paint was applied warm or cold.
This gave La Farge a medium that could be applied relatively quickly over dry plaster, as opposed to the painfully slow process of buon fresco in wet plaster. It also gave him a bright but matte surface that resembled the traditional fresco. For that reason, he did not fuse his encaustic.
The question that is often asked today is whether this is really encaustic or a form of cold wax painting, similar to that used by Brice Marden. There is no easy answer. Encaustic has historically been defined by its principal material (wax) or by its technique (fusing). The term encaustic, coming from the Greek, “to burn in,” does refer to the technique. But needn’t be the deciding factor, and we are certainly not intending to make any judgment here.
La Farge intended his work to be considered encaustic, and as with encaustic, the work that I saw at Trinity Church is as vibrant and beautiful as it must have been 130 years ago.