A Prodigy Dashed By Misfortune
Paintings Missing, New Work Discovered
A Prodigy Dashed By Misfortune: John J. Farrar’s Life in Art is an extensive, IRAAA cover story on John Farrar (1927-1972), an artist of extraordinary talent whose career was curtailed by alcoholism and mental illnesses. The article was published in 2003 (volume 19, number 2).
Farrar’s estate has been managed by his niece and nephew, Sonya Goree and Adrian McCoy and now McCoy reports that several of the paintings had been stolen.
Also, since the article was published, the author, Jerry Langley, has learned about a large work by Farrar. Because of these developments, we are reproducing excerpts from the original article, a listing of the missing paintings, and a reproduction of the recently discovered work.
Excerpt from A Prodigy Dashed By Misfortune: John J. Farrar’s Life in Art by Jerry L. Langley
As a youngster, John J. Farrar gained considerable fame as an artist on the mostly segregated Washington, D.C., art scene. He also gained fame as a “child prodigy” for his achievements in art competitions at the Atlanta University Annuals during the early 1940s. Beginning in his early teens in the early 1940s, Farrar received many awards for his paintings and was the subject of numerous newspaper articles praising his talents. His works were exhibited from New York to Atlanta, along with the art of some of the most prominent African American artists of the day. He was, his mentors said, an extraordinarily talented youth.
But Farrar’s career was plagued with personal and professional obstacles that cut it short, and the artist never realized his full potential. He had frequent run-ins with the law—usually for vagrancy and drunkenness—and, diagnosed as schizophrenic, spent most of the last 15 years of his life in various mental institutions. At times during his hospital stays, Farrar’s production was intense. Many of the paintings produced in confinement are quite impressive and some, such as Backstage and C4, suggest the volatile interplay between reality and illusion….
During his most distressful moments, Farrar may have tried to portray his pain. A large abstracted face with bizarre features—three eyes on one side, a drooping eye on the other and a large triangular nose and jagged mouth separating them—dominates the 1962 painting, C-3.
One of the most intriguing pieces from 1962 is Backstage, a work that shows just how meticulous the artist could be in his details. The catalyst for its creation may have been a play that was actually performed at St. Elizabeth’s. In an updated letter to his sister, Farrar says that plays were presented at the institution every May and that he had participated in some of them.
Within a relatively small (33 x 28”) space, the artist captures in minute detail a broad range of backstage activity and scenery during the performance of a play set in medieval times….
Farrar spent much of his adult life in prisons and mental institutions. In 1972, at the age of 44, he died penniless in Washington, D.C.’s hospital for the mentally ill, St. Elizabeth’s, where he had spent most of the last 15 years of his life. He is known most notably for his portraits and cityscape paintings which graphically captured the segregated Washington, D.C. scene of the 1940s and 1950s.
The paintings listed below by John J. Farrar have been reported missing by his nephew Adrian McCoy. If you have any information on the whereabouts of this artwork, please contact Adrian McCoy at 202-747-8405 or email@example.com.
Backstage, 34x28”; I’m Moving, 36 x2 4”; The Christ Child, 16 x 12”; The Last Supper, 26 x 36”; Ola’s Doll, 34 x3 2”; Farrar’s Doll, 26 x3 6”; Fish and Bowl, 11 x 14”; Girl with Doll, 12 x 16”; Hat and Mannequin, 18 x 24”; Jack in the Box, 11 x 14”; Maggie’s Dolls, 18 x 22”; Night Rider, 12 "; Shoes, Apples and Hankie, 12 x 16"
Farrar's Enduring Legacy
A prominent artist on the Washington, D.C. scene during the 1940s and early 1950s, John J. Farrar was a prolific painter and his artwork continues to surface. His Our American Heritage is a rareoil painting that is known to have been publicly displayed only once since he created it in Lorton, Virginia in 1954, probably while he was in prison. This was the year the U.S. Supreme Court issued its historic Brown v. Board of Education decision that brought an end to racial segregation in public schools. The landmark decision showed that America was finally prepared to take a firm stand against racial discrimination. It, perhaps, inspiredFarrar to producethe painting since he had felt the pains of such discrimination many times during his art career. Few, if any, cases before the nation’s highest tribunal have affected more directly the minds, hearts and daily lives of so many Americans.
As you look at the title, size, and skillfully detailed images, it isquite evident that, at this moment in time, Farrar was a proud American patriot. With access to paint and possibly somewhat mentally disturbed, he took up his brush and expressed that pride by creating this extraordinary work of art. In a painstaking effort, he lionized on canvas our noble American heritage by presenting in a very unusual and dramatic fashionimages of a vast array of important American symbols and every American president from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower (who was then in office).
The beautifully detailed renderings of the buildings, structures and portraits graphically demonstrate how truly talented Farrar was as well as his intent on producing a magnificent creation. Yet, there seems to be something very surreal about the manner in which he assembled so many impressive symbols into a single painting, aligned all the presidents around such a huge rectangular structure, and presented one image in the bottom center that casts a shadow while the others do not. It is possible that this larger-than-life painting may also reflect a manic reality induced by the schizophrenia which afflicted him during his adult life.
The Our American Heritage painting was discovered after the publication of the 2003 IRAAA article on Farrar. It is owned by Fritz Racine, a Maryland art dealer and consultant, who acquired it during the early 1980s at the encouragement of Adolphus Ealey, who owned the Barnett Aden Collection at that time. Racine states that he had recently moved to the United States from Haiti and was awestruck by the painting – not only because of its apparent quality, but because of its inspirational portrayal of such a broad array of American heritage. After some schooling on African American art from Ealey, Racine says he determined it was a valuable piece and purchased it from the E.B. Washington Gallery in D.C. He now has the painting prominently displayed on his basement wall.
According to Racine, there is only one confirmed public display of the painting. This occurred when he loaned the piece to the Washington, D.C. Martin Luther King Library during the early 1980s for a Black History Month exhibit. While he has heard that it may have been displayed at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C. before he acquired it, he has not been able to confirm this.
In the bottom right corner of the painting under the portrait of Eisenhower, there is a notation that states: “John Farrar 1954 Lorton, VA.” Many Washington, D.C. prisoners were incarcerated there in a detention facility, including John Farrar. He spent time in the Lorton jail before he began his trips to St. Elizabeths Hospital in the late 1950s and probably created the painting while there. During an interview for the 2003 IRAAA article, Lewelyn McCoy, his brother-in-law, stated that Farrar refused to do anything but paint while he was in the facility.
Farrar’s works are in the Barnett-Aden, Howard University, and Clark-Atlanta University collections as well as many others. A number of his works were exhibited in 1995 in Tampa, Florida by the Museum of African American Art. More recently, the Hemphill Fine Arts Gallery in Washington, D.C. displayed his Self Portrait painting in connection with its 2009 exhibition of works from the Barnett-Aden collection - now owned by Robert Johnson. Also, Annys Shin wrote a feature story on Farrar and his legacy for the November 7, 2010 issue of the Washington Post. It contains a caption that notes: “Artist John Farrar had the gift to become great, but died a pauper.” Clearly, interest in this icon and his artwork lives on.
Jerry Langley is an attorney, art researcher and art collector.