Excavating the Life and Work of John Farrar

Jerry Langley

During its 40 years of publication, the IRAAA has made significant contributions to the history and criticism of American art through the generous support of volunteer writers such as Jerry Langley. 

An art collector and former FIDC attorney, Jerry Langley draws from investigative skills honed during his legal career to research and write articles about exceptional, but little known, African American artists.  These artists include John Farrar (1927-1972). 

John Farrar. Photo: collection of Sonya Goree and Adrian McCoyBy age 14, John Farrar was recognized as a prodigy and was developing patrons among Washington DC’s art elite.  

However, the heightened perception that made Farrar a gifted visual artist may have had some link with his incipient schizophrenia.

Langley's article covers Farrar’s childhood, his discovery by a Washington DC sculptor and socialite, his extraordinary, early successes; his prolific production that depicted a broad range of subjects; his struggle with alcoholism and his descent into mental illness. The article also includes commentary on how the artist’s deteriorating mental state may be discerned in some of his paintings.  

The article “John Farrar,  A Prodigy Dashed By Misfortune,” was published in IRAAA Vol. 19.2, 2003

How was he able to piece together a biography of an artist who had fallen into obscurity?  Langley's reply follows.  

Discovering the Artist

John Farrar, self portrait, c. 1944, oil on canvas, RlJ Art Acquisition From the Barnett Aden CollectionI was inspired to write an article about John Farrar by a Northern Virginia collector of African American art.  He had acquired a 1942 oil painting, Street Scene, by Farrar that had been owned by Drew Pearson, the famous syndicated columnist.  He felt strongly that this talented, forgotten Washington, D.C . artist deserved much more public exposure. 

After preliminary research, I clearly agreed that Farrar's career and artwork warranted greater recognition, given his talent and unusual journey.  Farrar had received much local acclaim as a teenage artist during the early 1940s on the Washington, D.C. art scene.  The local newspaper referred to him as  "Gifted," "Brilliant" and a "Child Prodigy." However, this fame remained local for the most part and was short- lived.  Afflicted with alcoholism and schizophrenia as an adult, he spent most of his adult life in mental institutions and never achieved his full potential as an artist.  At the age of 44,  he died in obscurity in Washington, D.C.'s St. Elizabeth hospital, a ward of the state.

The Search

John Farrar, Backstage, 1962, oil on masonite, 34 x 28”Except for brief coverage in two publications — Afro-American Artists: A Bio-Bibliographical Directory and 250 Years of Afro-American Art: An Annotated Bibliography — I could find no information on Farrar in any other major historical publications on African American art that I reviewed.  The vast majority of information for the article came in bits and pieces from several sources: interviews with collectors and relatives and friends of Farrar; local newspaper coverage of his rise to fame as a teenager and his death; and art centers and catalogues.

John Farrar, Car Wash, 1962, oil on masonite, 18 x 24”With the help of a couple of local collectors, I was able to locate and interview Farrar's niece and nephew, Sonja Goree and Adrian McCoy, who were residing in Washington, D.C.   Their mother, who died in 1972, was Farrar's sister and married to Lewyn McCoy.  Both had given Farrar a great deal of support while he was struggling in his adult years. 

Goree and McCoy provided a enormous amount of information about Farrar's life and their own experiences with the artist.  In addition, they  provided access to the many Farrar paintings of 1962 which they owned and an abundance images and other materials.  The materials included documents about his institutional treatment, lists of his artwork owned by them and many of Farrar's letters to his sister and brother-in-law when he was in jail or mental institutions. In the letters, he noted concerns such as his difficulty getting money for art supplies, the art supplies he needed and his loneliness in the hospitals. He also mentioned his aspirations for exhibiting the works he was producing.

John Farrar, The Storm, 1962, oilAs expected, the information from the niece and nephew lead me to their father, Lewyn McCoy, located in North Carolina.  I interviewed him by phone and he provided information about his experiences with Farrar and, in turn, directed me to others to interview who knew Farrar and had his artwork, including the Jarvis family in northwest Washington, D.C.  These interviews were very productive.  Each person had a story to tell and most had works by Farrar that I could photograph and account for. 

John Farrar, Night Riders, oilAs I followed the leads from the interviews, one turned out to be quite interesting. It lead me to information about the Norman Jarvis Funeral home on U Street in Washington, D.C., where Farrar had lived and painted on the top floor for a short time as an adult when he was without a home and low on funds.  When I visited the site, I discovered that the building (no longer a funeral home) was located across the alley way from the studio where noted artist Sam Gilliam was currently creating his artwork. 

In search for additional information, I accessed online the archives of the three major Washington, D.C. newspapers that were published during the span of Farrar's life: the Times Herald, the Washington Post, and the Evening Star.  I found 17 articles on the artist.  Most were published between 1942 and 1945 during his heyday as a teenage artist.  Among the last, which focused largely on his death in 1972, was a article in the Washington Post which stated that he was given a military funeral and buried in the "Garden of Honors" at the Harmony Memorial Park Cemetery in Hyattsville, MD.  

When I visited the burial site and conferred with a cemetery staff person, I discovered to my surprise that in stark contrast to the titles given for the burial ceremony and grave site, Farrar was buried in an unmarked grave (lot 101 B3), similar to the way other members of his family were buried in different areas there.

 John Farrar, The Christ Child, 1962, oilMy search also lead me to a number of art and research centers including the Howard University and Clark-Atlanta University Art Galleries, the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture as well as to Black Entertainment Television (BET) regarding Farrar paintings in the Barnett-Aden Collection, catalogues on the John Farrar, Daniel in the Lion’s Den,  oilBarnett-Aden Collection, and the John Farrar: Two Lives catalogue published by the Museum of African American Art in Tampa, Florida for a 1996 exhibition.

While Farrar was a very prolific painter, I was able to locate only about 10 of his works beyond the approximately 63 works he produced in 1962 that were owned by his niece and nephew.  In particular, I was not able to determine the location of several paintings for which he had received awards and acclaim during his teen years at the Times Herald art fairs: General Douglas McArthur (1942),  Burst Watermelon (1943), and Guitar Player (1944).  Sonja Goree and Adrian McCoy said that they had found leads for Burst Watermelon that ended unsuccessfully in Texas.  The Guitar Player (a portrait of Farrar's father) was, at one time, a part of the Barnett-Aden collection.

 John Farrar, Ola’s Doll, 1962, oil on masonite, 34 x 32”I also was not able to locate a portrait of Count Bassie, the famous band leader, which was reportedly painted around 1962 and had piqued my interest.  It was said to have been commissioned by the band leader for himself.  Perhaps, it's now in the possession of a Basie relative.  

After making extensive inquiry to D.C.'s St. Elizabeth Hospital and some former hospital staff,  I was not successful in getting information about any paintings which Farrar may have left behind there.

John Farrar, C4, 1962, oil on masonite, 11 x14”However, shortly after the publication of the article, I discovered a major Farrar painting — Our American Heritage  — which is owned by a Maryland art dealer.  It is a rare 1954 oil painted in Lorton, Virginia, undoubtedly while Farrar was in prison.  Our American Heritage has been publicly displayed only once — at a Martin Luther King, Jr. Library  Black History Month exhibit in the 1980s or early 1990s.  Showcasing his patriotism during that pivotal year in civil rights history (1954), Farar skillfully lionized on a large canvas (52" X 104")  every American president from George Washington to Dwight Eisenhower (who was then in office) and surrounded them with a vast array of American symbols.  

As a prolific artist with an alcohol problem and a constant need for funds, Farrar sold or gave away many paintings in the Washington, D.C. area during his adult lifetime.  I was contacted in 2009 by a person in California who stated that a number of his relatives had portraits painted by Farrar. 

I am confident that many more John Farrar paintings still remain in this area and scattered across the country, yet to be discovered.

Jerry Langley lives in Annadale, VA.