One of America’s most acclaimed artists, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s career spanned from the 1870s through the 1920s. He embraced virtually every artistic and decorative medium, designing and directing his studios to produce leaded-glass windows, mosaics, lighting, glass, pottery, metalwork, enamels, jewelry, and interiors. As the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812–1902), founder of Tiffany & Company, the fancy goods store that became the renowned jewelry and silver firm, Tiffany chose to pursue his own artistic interests in lieu of joining the family business.
Tiffany began his career as a painter, working under the influence of such artists as George Inness (1825–1894) and Samuel Colman (1832–1920). Possessing financial means, he traveled extensively through Europe, North America, and—in 1870–71, with painter Robert Swain Gifford (1840–1905)—North Africa, where he derived inspiration for Snake Charmer at Tangier, Africa (21.170). Completed in 1872 and exhibited at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, the painting shows Tiffany’s penchant for exotic art and architecture.
Beginning in the late 1870s, Tiffany turned his attention to decorative arts and interiors, although he never abandoned painting. His first significant interior design project was for his 1878 top-floor home and studio at the Bella Apartments on 48 East 26th Street in New York City. The leaded-glass window from the entrance hall (2002.474), one of his earliest windows, illustrates an unconventional use of glass, including experimental opalescent, marbleized, and confetti-type glass, as well as crown glass and rough-cut “jewels.” This glass fashioned a window of strikingly abstract design suggestive of a bold paintbrush stroke. A few years later, Tiffany’s father commissioned McKim, Mead & White to construct a picturesque Romanesque Revival multifamily dwelling on the northwest corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue in New York. Completed in 1885, Louis Tiffany and his family occupied the top two floors. His exotic studio, the site of artistic creations and social gatherings, was a frequently photographed space. A pastel rendering (2003.606) of his second wife, Louise, in a corner of the studio demonstrates Tiffany’s deft hand in this difficult medium as he translated and differentiated various lush fabrics and textures.
Tiffany and Colman (by this point a business associate) worked together to design the furnishings and interiors for the New York mansion (completed in 1892) of Louisine and Henry Osborne Havemeyer, Tiffany’s most ardent patrons. As part of the interior design, all surfaces in the house were treated and the decoration blended various styles. The library, also called the Rembrandt Room, was Celtic-inspired, as illustrated by the armchair from this space (1992.125). The form of the chair recalls Viking precedents, and the carved interlace presents Celtic motifs.
Tiffany designed private interiors and public spaces for numerous clients. For the widow of Henry Field, brother of Chicago merchant Marshall Field, Tiffany designed a gallery (that no longer survives) for the Art Institute of Chicago. An existing design drawing (67.654.4) illustrates the south wall of the gallery: a fireplace, with mosaic above and on the sides, is flanked by ebony pilasters surrounded by green walls. This is one of an extensive collection of Tiffany design drawings in the Museum’s collection.
By late 1892 or early 1893, Tiffany built a glasshouse in Corona, Queens, New York, and, with Arthur Nash, a skilled glassworker from Stourbridge, England, his furnaces developed a method whereby different colors were blended together in the molten state, achieving subtle effects of shading and texture. Recalling the Old English word fabrile (hand-wrought), Tiffany named the blown glass from his furnaces Favrile, a trademark that signified glass of hand-made and unique quality. In 1896, the Museum received fifty-six blown vases and roundels from H. O. Havemeyer, one of the first collectors of Favrile glass (96.17.10). Almost thirty years later, Tiffany loaned to the Museum twenty-seven pieces from his own collection, representing a wider range of production techniques and more developed styles of glass. One of these new techniques produced glass that resembled Lava or “volcanic” glass (51.121.13), with broad areas of gold luster meant to mimic hot molten rock spilling from the mouth of a volcano. The rough, black areas were made by introducing bits of basalt or talc into the molten glass formed into vases in organic, irregular shapes.
Of all of Tiffany’s artistic endeavors, leaded-glass brought him the greatest recognition. Tiffany and his early rival, John La Farge, revolutionized the look of stained glass, which had remained essentially unchanged since medieval times when craftsmen utilized flat panes of white and colored glass with details painted with glass paints before firing and leading. Tiffany and La Farge experimented with new types of glass and achieved a more varied palette with richer hues and greater density. By 1881, each had patented an opalescent glass, a unique American phenomenon that featured a milky, opaque, and sometimes rainbow-hued appearance with the introduction of light. Internally colored with variegated shades of the same or different hues, Tiffany’s Favrile glass enabled craftsmen to substitute random tonal gradations, lines, textures, and densities inherent in the material itself for pictorial details. Magnolias and Irises (1981.159), executed by Tiffany Studios around 1908, was designed as a memorial window based on a well-known motif—the River of Life. It depicts magnolias composed of opalescent drapery glass, heavily folded or creased glass, and iris in multihued tones illustrating Tiffany’s ability to “paint” with glass.
Growing out of an interest in interior decorating, Tiffany and his studios turned toward another venture in 1898—lighting and lamps. Although Tiffany’s craftsmen used patterns to make lampshades, each was unique due to the selection of the individual pieces of glass with their varied colors and densities. A water lily lamp (1974.214.15a, b), with its organic bronze support composed of lily pads, is crowned by a shade featuring pink opalescent stems that terminate in creamy water lily blossoms against a background of rippled blue glass, evocative of a bog where water lilies dwell.
Mosaics were also a natural progression and extension of Tiffany’s work in Favrile and leaded glass. Glass mosaics were used in interior settings, initially for church interiors and fireplace surrounds, but then developed into full artistic works. Inspired by Byzantine churches Tiffany surveyed on his European travels that used flat, solid-color squares, or tesserae, he improved upon the tradition by incorporating innovative techniques of modeling and shading to produce a wide range of colors within glass. Glass was also cut into different shapes to enhance pictorial qualities. Garden Landscape and Fountain (1976.105) is a tour de force of mosaic work, with its subtle color shading, textured glass, and uniquely cut pieces set in a challenging pictorial composition.
In 1899, Tiffany introduced enamelwork in London, where he exhibited plaques and vases made in the firm’s unique style. Layers of translucent enamel in wide-ranging naturalistically shaded hues were applied to a luminous surface that was usually gilt, and finished with an iridescent coating that provided a rainbow luster. One of fifteen enamelworks that Tiffany lent to the Museum in 1925 (51.121.29) shows bold repoussé in plump purple plums and translucent green foliage that envelop the large round bowl, echoing the shape of a plum. A drawing recently donated to the Museum (2005.495) depicts the enamel bowl with its ripening plums and sinewy branches.
A few years after mastering enamelwork, Tiffany launched a pottery studio, capitalizing on the extraordinary popularity of American ceramic vessels at the turn of the century. His designs were inspired by contemporary European, particularly French, ceramics, exceptional examples of which he had seen on trips to Paris. The shape of the Museum’s small symmetrical vase is Chinese-inspired (51.121.21), with sophisticated red, dark green, and yellow glazes that recall those of the French ceramicist Pierre-Adriene Dalpayrat (1844–1910), whose work Tiffany admired.
Tiffany was knowledgeable about jewelry trends through art periodicals, international expositions, and, of course, his father’s firm, Tiffany & Company—to which he was appointed art director upon his father’s death in 1902. His earliest jewelry designs were exhibited at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis. In addition to enamels, Favrile glass vessels, and pottery, Tiffany’s jewelry garnered attention and favorable press by the art critics of the period. An interest in nature, use of semiprecious stones with enamel, and handcraftsmanship elevate his unusual jewelry to the status of art (2002.620).
At about the same time, Tiffany was completing his Long Island country home, Laurelton Hall. Built at the height of his career, between 1902 and 1905, the eighty-four-room, eight-level estate was situated on nearly 600 acres overlooking Cold Spring Harbor in Oyster Bay, New York. A showcase for his unique integration of nature and exoticism, Laurelton Hall was the ultimate expression of Tiffany’s aesthetic ideals, envisioned as a total work of art. This was his dream home, where creativity flowed freely and convention was eschewed in place of novelty. Now sadly destroyed, remnants of the estate are preserved in museum collections. The four-columned loggia that currently graces The Charles Engelhard Court of the Museum’s American Wing (1978.10.1) was originally installed on the south side of Laurelton Hall.
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Eidelberg, Martin, et al. The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.
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Obniski, Monica. “The Arts and Crafts Movement in America.” (June 2008)