Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection

Tiffany Studios, Group of lamps (birds-eye detail). Photograph by John Faier.
© 2013 The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

Today, the name Tiffany is most quickly associated with the noted jewelry and silver company founded by Charles Tiffany in 1837. However, his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, who would become artistic director of the eponymous firm following his father’s death, also contributed to the Tiffany mystique through a variety of professional artistic enterprises. Whether through his own work as an artist, or through the multitude of luxury products he created through one of his five businesses, Louis Comfort Tiffany and his lifelong “quest for beauty” forever impacted American art and design and its reputation abroad. His work was even acquired by American museums, including The Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Smithsonian Institution, within his lifetime.

Louis Comfort Tiffany’s impressive legacy is celebrated in the new exhibition at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection, opening October 16. Through a presentation of sixty works including stained-glass windows, lamps, vases, furnishings, and accessories, this exhibition explores Tiffany’s creative genius, his innovative spirit, and his lifelong commitment to exploring nature’s effortless and everlasting beauty.

Tiffany Studios, Landscape window, 1893-1920, photograph by John Faier, ©Driehaus Museum, 2013.

Even as a young man, Tiffany looked to nature as a source of inspiration. After studying painting at the National Academy of Design in 1866–’67, he traveled to Europe and North Africa, sketching landscapes and architecture along the way. As his professional production expanded to include the decorative arts and architectural design elements, nature remained the constant. Samuel Howe, a contemporary critic, wrote, “For years a Painter has given himself up to the peculiar study of transmitting beauties of nature to elements of decoration. Here he has lived for twenty years, working and resting and working again. The garden his school, the flower his companion, his friend and his inspirer.” 

In fact, Tiffany conceived of the gardens at his large country home, Laurelton Hall, in Long Island, as grounds for inspiration, using them in conjunction with a residential art school he established onsite. Daffodils, peonies, snowball hydrangeas, and wisteria, along with exotic specimens and humble field flowers across his estate were photographed, then their forms utilized for household objects like lamps and vases. Contemporary scholar David A. Hanks wrote, “The long slender stems of glass or bronze that support the various flowerform bowls, ranging from buds to open flowers, are pure fantasy, without a functional use other than as a work of art; grouped, the vases create a garden.” Real pebbles or shells often were also incorporated into his finished objects. “Nature is always right – that is a saying we often hear from the past,” wrote Tiffany in 1917, “and here is another: Nature is always beautiful.” His elaborately designed windows were more like scenic canvases than simple portals to the outdoors.

As Tiffany’s technical prowess increased, so too did his ability to capture the subtle translucence of a dragonfly’s wing or the gradation of colors in a bird’s wing into glass. Ever the inventor, and frustrated by the limitations of commercially available glass, Tiffany established his own glass manufactories after twenty years of experimentation. At the Stourbridge Glass Company (later renamed Tiffany Furnaces) in Corona, Queens (a separate glass-production business from Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company), Tiffany and designer Arthur J. Nash, with the help of approximately one-hundred glass makers, could experiment widely and push traditional boundaries. In 1893, the firm perfected a new type of glass they called Favrile, a derivation of the Latin word fabrilis meaning handmade.

Tiffany Glass Decorating Company, Eighteen-light Lily table lamp, prior to 1902, photograph by John Faier, ©Driehaus Museum, 2013.

Richly colored, Favrile glass was also sometimes exposed to metal oxides in order to mimic the iridescence found in ancient glass due to its natural aging process. Sometimes it was molded or combined with other colors to simulate movement. These advancements helped Tiffany fabricate works of art in glass rather than on glass. For example, medieval stained glass windows achieved their imagery by painting on glass. Tiffany, though, created his imagery “without the assistance of paints or enamels, solely by using opalescent glass in accordance with the principles that govern mosaic work,” according to one of Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co.’s brochures.

Beyond glass, Tiffany also explored other artistic pursuits. As an interior designer under the umbrella of Louis C. Tiffany and Company, Associated Artists, he completed varied projects for wealthy patrons, even redecorating the White House for President Arthur. L.C. Tiffany & Co. was created to fabricate furniture. The Corona plant expanded to include a foundry and metal shop, which also facilitated Tiffany’s expansion into households of more moderate means via a multitude of domestic objects – desk sets, jewelry boxes, candlesticks – available at his own shops and select retailers like Chicago’s Marshall Field & Co. Tiffany’s personal “quest for beauty” emphasized aesthetic qualities over commercial or machine-made objects.

Read MoreBy Holly Keris

Author: Arbus

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