Uncovering St. Cecilia’s Artistic History

by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
February 23, 2021

Armed only with two names, an old photograph, and a brief 1886 news article, research into the artistic history of MCHS’s unsigned “St. Cecilia” window began in the summer of 2020. The local history had long been established (see The St. Cecilia Window), but who created it? The answer to that question is more complicated than it might initially seem.

Prominent ad for The La Farge Decorative Art Co. that appeared in a national publication through 1885.

Around the time of the window’s dedication, a brief news report attributed it to “Mr. John Johnston, who was formerly with Messrs. Le [sic] Farge & Co., of New York.” This Mr. La Farge was none other than John La Farge, one of the early titans of American stained glass. John Johnston, his devoted assistant, had worked at The La Farge Decorative Art Company from its inception in 1883 until its bankruptcy in 1885. So the “formerly” could be interpreted two ways: one, that John Johnston had struck out on his own after the company went belly-up, or two, that he continued to work for the great artist he was dedicated to, but was “formerly” as the company didn’t exist anymore. Three pieces of evidence would hint towards the latter.

The 10th Street Studio Building between 5th and 6th Avenues in Manhattan around the time La Farge rented space there.

In December 1887, John La Farge submitted 26 works to the 3rd Annual Architectural League Exhibition. Among them were several that listed La Farge as the artist and Johnston as the assistant (interestingly, one of the windows, Vision of St. John at Trinity Church Boston, has a dedication with a remarkable resemblance to our St. Cecilia’s).  In 1888, they also both worked out of the same 10th Street Studio Building. Just half a block away was Church of the Ascension, the only known church with windows by John Johnston (a church where La Farge just so happens to have painted an extremely large mural in 1886-8).

So was the work created by the assistant under the supervision of his master or created by the newly independent assistant as an hommage to his master? We may never know the answer, but there are stones yet to be unturned. One line of inquiry still being pursued that might bring clarity, although not certainty, is determining whether the Cranes – at least initially – commissioned the window with the company. There is no record of the commission among the family’s archives, but, fortuitously, La Farge was required to list all his current commissions during the 1885 bankruptcy court case. As our window would very likely have been commissioned by that time, might we find St. Cecilia there?

Stay tuned for updates! Research into the window’s artistic history is ongoing.