John La Farge, Diadem Mountain at Sunset, Tahiti, c1891
Source: Wikimedia Commons
There was an interesting article recently by Christopher Benfey in the New York Review about John La Farge, an American painter also known for his stained glass windows, in which historian Henry Adams detected “infinite shades and refractions of light". In 1890 Adams and La Farge traveled in the South Pacific, first to Hawaii and then to Samoa (where they met Robert Louis Stevenson). There 'the two friends became connoisseurs of the so-called “afterglow,” when sky and surf were irradiated by the setting sun. Under La Farge’s tutelage, Adams became “gently intoxicated on the soft violets and strong blues, the masses of purple and the broad bands of orange and green in the sunsets.” La Farge took notes on the pattern of the waves breaking across a coral reef, then made a superb watercolor based on his observations. The best description of such scenes, at once overwhelming and elusive, comes from his own account, in what the art historian John Stuart Gordon, writing in the catalog, aptly calls a “stained-glass window of words”:
There was all the charm that belongs to the near coasting of land in smooth waters: the rise and fall of the great green reflections in the blue satin of the sea inside of the reef; the sharp blue outside of the white line of reef all iridescent with the breaking of the surf; the patches of coral, white or yellow or purple, wavering below the crystal swell, so transparent as to recall the texture of uncut topaz or amethyst; the shoals of brilliant fish, blue and gold-green, as bright and flickering as tropical hummingbirds; the contrast of great shadows upon the mountain, black with an inkiness that I have never seen elsewhere; the fringes of golden or green palms upon the shores, sometimes inviting, sometimes dreary.'The catalog referred to above was produced to accompany the exhibition John La Farge's Second Paradise: Voyages in the South Seas, 1890-1891. Yale Art Gallery has a very good site where you can look at John La Farge's South Sea sketch books - the first one, for example, covers Samoa and includes a quick sketch of a view out toward the sea.