STAINED GLASS is alluring -- sapphire, amethyst and ruby, glowing as if a light had been turned on in an enormous jewel box. It captured the imagination of John La Farge, intellectual and artistic dabbler of the Victorian era, whose retrospective is at the Museum of American Art.

La Farge was sick in bed, and mulling over the problems of colored glass, when he made the discovery of his life. Looking toward the window, he noticed how the light streamed through his tooth powder jar. A cheap bit of glass. But its opalescent quality caught La Farge's eye.

And so what would be called opalescent glass went from tooth powder jars to church windows, and even the great Louis Comfort Tiffany would use it. It was serendipitously simple. Because it was layered, the material itself could be used to create a picture, rather than the artist's having to paint directly on the glass.

There is an engaging cohesiveness about this show. While La Farge painted landscapes in oil and still lifes in watercolors, drew illustrations and decorated churches, all roads led to the windows. His waterlilies, apple blossoms and irises are watercolor studies for the glass. And the large oil painting, "After-Glow, Tautira River, Tahiti," seems pieced together along lead lines. It has the rosy coloration of a Frederic E. Church landscape, but with a more modern-looking flatness to it. The theme seems to be pure Gauguin -- but La Farge actually beat him to the South Seas by a year.

A collector of Japanese prints (he did this before his friend Whistler did, the catalogue notes), La Farge made a brilliant connection. He saw that the flat, decorative quality of the prints could easily be transferred to the windows. In fact, the windows demanded it.

Truly the loveliest things displayed here are his limpid, liquid "paintings" in glass. In "Fish and Flowering Branch," the carp may be seen through layers of blue "water." In "Peonies in the Wind with Kakemono Borders," lavender, pink and red blossoms bend branches with their weight, and the wind pushes clouds across the sky. The former was made for the home of an avid fisherman in Manchester, Massachusetts, the latter for the John Hay House, on Lafayette Square where the Hay-Adams Hotel now stands.

Which brings up the ironic point that we are able to enjoy these windows because the stately homes for which many of them were fashioned (La Farge made glass for the likes of Cyrus Field, J. Pierpont Morgan and William Henry Vanderbilt) no longer exist.

JOHN LA FARGE -- Through October 12 at the Museum of American Art.