The shimmering art of Louis C. Tiffany

The Arts

March 30, 2020



The designer’s Classic lamps will be on display at Reynolda House in Winston-Salem.

By Jim Moriarty

While on one hand it could seem as though Louis Comfort Tiffany was born with a silver glasscutter in his mouth, the son of the founder of Tiffany and Company created, over his lifetime, an entire genre of decorative art so ubiquitous, so singularly chic and stylistically distinctive that his name alone has come to represent the thing itself. It is the de rigueur description of any leaded glass shade. Say “Tiffany lamp” and you need say no more. All the rage one day, passé the next — fashion may be fickle, but the art endures.

The intimate gallery space at Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem will house a traveling exhibition of Tiffany’s finest work, on loan from the Neustadt Collection at the Queens Museum in New York. 

“The decorative arts are accessible to everybody,” says Phil Archer, Reynolda’s director of program and interpretation. “To have a gallery with the light actually shining through the works of art will be new for us and make it a very magical space. It just fits at Reynolda because of the natural setting of the gardens.”

The show comprises 20 of the most celebrated examples of Tiffany’s lamps and, interestingly, three forgeries that serve to demonstrate the difference between faux Tiffany and authentic works. There’s a display explaining the steps in the creation of the lampshades and biographical information on the key personnel at Tiffany Studios — chemist Arthur J. Nash and designers Clara Driscoll, Agnes Northrop and Frederick Wilson — who all made meaningful contributions to the artistry of the lamps. 

Also part of the exhibit are five Tiffany windows and, separate from the exhibit, a display of Tiffany vases purchased by Katharine Reynolds on view in the Reynolda House itself. 

The role of Driscoll, née Clara Wolcott, who was in charge of the “Tiffany girls” in the glass-cutting department, only came to light in the first decade of the 21st century when Martin Eidelberg, an art history professor from Rutgers University, discovered her letters archived at Kent State University. Wolcott is responsible for the design of two of Tiffany’s most remarkable lamps, Wisteria and Dragonfly.

While Tiffany may not have been solely responsible for every design, most of the concepts were his, Archer says. “The aesthetic was Tiffany’s. The kind of color palette and the combination of colors and details and opacities were Tiffany’s. It’s almost like Mozart writing a piece and then conducting the orchestra. He’s not playing any of the instruments. Everybody else is making the music, but the original concept is his. They bring a lot of creativity to how they play it — though that may not be an exact metaphor because some of the concepts, like the Wisteria lamp, were Driscoll’s.”

Born in 1848, the slight, delicate son of Charles Louis Tiffany could have slid seamlessly into the family business selling fine jewelry and accessories. “He had every opportunity to take over from his father and be the lead jeweler and luxury-goods maker in New York,” Archer says. “The primrose path was laid out for him.” 

When the younger Tiffany was enrolled at Eagleswood Military Academy in New Jersey, he met and studied under the painter George Inness. The effects would be profound. By the age of 19, he had become a founding member of the American Society of Painters in Water Colors and had begun to exhibit his work at the National Academy of Design. He traveled to Europe and North Africa and would be particularly influenced by what, at the time, was called the “Orientalist” style. 

“When I first had a chance to travel in the East and to paint where the people and the buildings are clad in beautiful hues, the pre-eminence of color in the world was brought forcibly to my attention,” Tiffany once said. One of his better-known paintings, Snake Charmer at Tangier, Africa, expressed Tiffany’s interest in the play of light and color. It was exhibited at Snedecor’s Gallery in New York in 1872 and later at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia. It remained in Tiffany’s personal collection until 1921, when he donated it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

While still painting, Tiffany drifted into design and decorating. At the same time, he had become enthralled by the possibilities of glass as an art form.

“Tiffany hated modern glass because it was too clean,” Archer says. “He wanted glass like archeologists were digging up in Syria and Lebanon. It was like opals. It had color and shimmer. He hired chemists to really develop all of these different colors and ranges. The beauty that he found in that glass and trying to replicate it becomes the story.” 

Tiffany didn’t paint on glass — “staining” it only rarely, usually in faces — he painted with glass. The use of metallic oxides allowed for the development of the range of colors that distinguish his work.

“Standing by the glass workers, he had them fold the glass on itself and pinch in places to achieve the effect of magnolia blooms in a window of his library at the Tiffany mansion,” writes Julia Tiffany Hoffman, a great-granddaughter. “A pulled rod of glass was slightly melted and scrolled on the glass to effect vines, stems and spiderwebs. Louis used just the right color combination of paper-thin glass bits to achieve a painterly quality.”

In addition to the inspired glassmaking, the creation of Tiffany’s lamps was aided by the innovative use of copper foil. “There’s a lot of artistry in the creation of the glass, and there’s artistry in the cutting and piecing it together,” Archer says.

Tiffany was also receiving commissions decorating American palaces for Gilded Age royalty like Cornelius Vanderbilt and Henry and Louisine Havemeyer. He decorated Mark Twain’s house in Connecticut and the interior of the old Lyceum Theatre on Park Avenue South in New York. He did the Ponce de Léon Hotel in St. Augustine, Fla., and Chester A. Arthur’s White House. 

“Tiffany would design from soup spoon to chandelier,” Archer says. “He was creating almost complete works of art in these houses. But upper middle-class people could afford the lamps. They ended up propelling Tiffany Studios financially. In his lectures, Tiffany almost never referred to his lamps. He would talk about these huge projects and the large windows. The lamps were sort of the bread and butter.”

Tiffany believed nature should be the primary source of design. “Every really great structure is simple in its lines — as in nature — every great scheme of decoration thrusts no one note upon the eye,” he wrote. Having outlived two wives and three of his eight children, in his final years Tiffany’s ultimate project was his estate on Oyster Bay on Long Island — Laurelton Hall, 84 rooms on 600 acres. He designed every nook, cranny and garden. 

Punctuality and orderliness were valued traits. The giant of art nouveau attempted to stick his finger in the dike of modernism with the establishment of the Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, devoted to helping aspiring artists. 

“Paintings should not hurt the eyes,” he cautioned. By the time Tiffany died in 1933, much of his wealth had evaporated in the crash of 1929 and the ensuing Great Depression. Laurelton was sold in 1945, and the land subdivided. 

In 1957, the largely abandoned great house, containing some of Tiffany’s finest windows, burned to the ground. It took two days to melt the art of a lifetime.  SP

Visit reynoldahouse.org for exhibition dates.

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