Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on September 3, 2008 in Resource Library with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
Louis Comfort Tiffany: Long Islander of the Gilded Age
by Franklin Hill Perrell
"We are going after the money there is in art,
but art is there all the same." -- Louis Comfort Tiffany
Louis Comfort Tiffany is associated with Long Island most prominently for his fabled home, Laurelton Hall on Cold Spring Harbor whose approximately 600 acres spanned much of Oyster Bay and Laurel Hollow. Prior to building the home between 1903-05, he and other family members summered in the area for decades and its natural and topographic imagery permeates his decorative designs especially windows. For Long Islanders of today, he is a favorite son, claimed as one of our own, whose continuous presence here is proclaimed in his many splendid church windows, virtually all of which survive to the present day. These provide a lasting testimony to the aspirations of the Gilded Age: its material propensities for architectural embellishment and conspicuous consumption, its social debate of conflicts in taste between new or old, American or foreign, and its capacity for spiritual and aesthetic renewal despite the overwhelming materialism of the era.
The name of Louis Comfort Tiffany, as both an individual and artist, must be distinguished from the store which bears his illustrious family name. He was born in 1848, in Connecticut where his grandfather had first achieved success as an industrialist mill owner, and from where his father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, launched out into New York to found the family firm. It first achieved its repute under the name Tiffany, Young and Ellis, selling luxury goods and ultimately jewelry to the elite. By mid century, Charles Lewis Tiffany bought out his partners, achieved branches in Paris and London, and became the biggest jeweler in America. In this atmosphere, his son, Louis Comfort Tiffany (hereafter, Tiffany), announced that he preferred making art to joining the (by now) Tiffany & Co., and sought study in Europe. He had already received a sound training from George Inness, the tonalist painter, who first taught Tiffany at a military high school in Irvington on Hudson. In 1868-68, Tiffany traveled to Paris, met with and studied leading painters, and readily found his métier as an "Orientalist" painter. As such, he portrayed exotic themes of souks and mosques in settings of Egypt, North Africa, and elsewhere in the Ottoman Empire. Such visual travelogues found a ready market as they embodied a taste for splendor, romance, and fantasy popular in that era, and most typically showed a simmering hot pervasive light as full sun in a desert climate.
When Tiffany returned to America, in 1871, he was elected an associate member of the National Academy (where he had first exhibited in 1867) and did succeed in finding collectors; however, he realized that his chances for success, due to the limited audience for art, would not fulfill his expectations. During the ensuing decade he used his artistic skills in the more practical arena of decorative projects to enhance interiors, mostly in New York. By 1881, this resulted in the formation of a consortium, Louis C. Tiffany and Associated Artists, with several principals, besides Tiffany himself, that included Samuel Colman, painter, Lockwood de Forest, painter and expert on wood carving from the far east, and Candace Wheeler, who was a specialist in textile weaving. The firm quickly gained renown with assignments that included Mark Twain's house in Hartford, the Seventh Regiment Armory interior in New York, the Union League Club, the Havemeyer residence, and the White House at the time of Chester A. Arthur's presidency.
One might describe this period in the aftermath of the Civil War as the beginning of the Gilded Age, a term coined by Mark Twain and Charles Dudley Warner, collaborators on a satirical novel of that title published in 1873. That period, in its full flower, is generally understood to encompass 1880-1910, but its true closure was World War I which began in 1914. This coincides with Louis Comfort Tiffany's foremost activity as a glass designer, his greatest acknowledged contribution to the decorative arts, and the aspect of his multifaceted career which is best known. Tiffany's involvement with glass began as an outgrowth of his work as an interior designer and decorator. In seeking specific visual effects that he desired to convey through glass, especially first in windows, he found that no manufacturer produced what he was looking for. His taste for the exotic led him to favor effects he noted in Persian and ancient Roman glass, qualities of pervasive color, variable opacity, luminescence, or shimmering metallic qualities, mottled or shifting surface textures, aspects of which might be deemed as irregular, even possibly defective, by conventional glass producers. Tiffany had an aesthetic premise clearly in mind: more abstract, emphasizing decorative pattern over pictorial description, and in an arts and crafts mode, hand done (with its potential fore irregularity, including what others might think of as mistakes rather than the enforced uniformity of the machine made. He named his products "favrile" after an old French term meaning fabricated or handmade. Since no one else could do it, he started his own glass works, at first together with John La Farge, another artist of that era similarly associated with glass making. The two disagreed however, and went their separate ways. La Farge never again had his own factory, but Tiffany went on to preside over an enterprise whose workshop, the Tiffany Furnaces located in Corona Queens, ultimately employed over 300 people.
Tiffany Studios and Tiffany & Co.
Louis Comfort Tiffany's singular business enterprise producing objects of his own design and specifications, had its origin as the Tiffany Glass Company in 1885. It was renamed Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in 1892, and continued as Tiffany Studios from 1900 through ca. 1924 when his manufacturing in Queens was closed, though some limited activity was sustained until c. 1932/33. Throughout this time, these endeavors functioned as a business quite separate from Tiffany & Co. The latter organization, the same as exists today, was for much of this time under the authority of his father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, who remained its president until his death in 1902. Confusion between these identities which share the Tiffany name arises from the numerous overlapping aspects of their operation. The first was the marketing source of L.C. Tiffany's productions. These were primarily sold through Tiffany Studios itself in its own display room as well as other retail outlets worldwide, including the shop of Siegfried Bing, L'Espirt Art Nouveau in Paris. L. C. Tiffany displayed his productions at international fairs, and sought recognition through acquisition by museums and collectors, as well as regular consumers. Meanwhile, his father's shop emphasized its own jewelry and silver while still selling some of the goods made by Tiffany Studios. After his father's passing, he inherited a controlling interest in the company and served as Vice President, though throughout this time maintaining Tiffany Studios and similar entities as his own independent business. Furthermore, in 1907, L.C. Tiffany became chief jewelry design director for Tiffany & Co.. L.C. Tiffany's designs for jewelry, unlike his windows and glass, were produced primarily for Tiffany & Co., likewise some of his work in ceramics and silver. So, there were productions made only for and sold by Tiffany Studios and others, though, fewer made specifically for Tiffany & Co., some where the identification could rightly be said to be dual. Nonetheless, it would not be correct to assume that everything produced by Tiffany & Co. during this period was either designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany or produced under his supervision. A host of other designers, some of them quite famed, worked for Tiffany & Co.. In the matter of his architectural work (like mosaics) and stained glass windows, Tiffany Studios was the sole vehicle of distribution.
An Exemplar of Art Nouveau
The overall spirit of L.C. Tiffany's designs was Art Nouveau. The precise qualities of his style defy pinpointing since he was so diverse, and freely crossed over into more historically derivative modes when the need (as in a window commission) arose. Yet, his work is immediately and unmistakably identifiable as his own. This quality arises out of the richness, complexity, and surprisingly original combination of approaches he orchestrated. A sumptuousness that suggests no expense spared and far surpassing the requirements of the project to produce the extraordinary is typical. That being said, there are general themes. Tiffany was most comfortable using Art Nouveau sinuosity, decorative pattern, organicism, enlargement of naturalistic detail, and modes of flatness or partial abstraction associated with Japonism. His decorative productions are distinguished by a novel use of materials, especially to heighten the surface luster and to create scintillating effects of light. It is really his talent in varying the qualities of the component glass, used in windows or lamps, and their pertinence to the respective imagery, that attracts the most attention in distinguishing his oeuvre.
Art Nouveau has many definitions, yet in all its forms it consistently rejected those modes of western design labeled classical or neo classical. That it thoroughly eschewed historicism may be debated (evidence the comparison between the curves of Rococo and Art Nouveau). There was unquestionably a deliberate program to coin a new aesthetic, one that asserted the need for fine design that would embrace all aspects of the living environment to create interiors that were total artworks.
Tiffany's approaches were diverse. In some windows, Renaissance and occasionally classical motifs prevail, and he did indeed paint on some window designs, yet taken as a whole, his involvement and leadership within the avant-garde of his time is indisputable. Tiffany's early aesthetic interiors, such as in the Seventh Regiment Armory, were radical in the variety and blending of exotic design sources, yet they were sufficiently appealing to the Victorian sensibility because of their rich use of materials, high standard of craftsmanship and evocation of fantasy.
Experiments in Glass Production
Tiffany began working with glass during the early 1870s and created his first windows in 1876. He started making his first glass lampshades in the mid 1890s. Tiffany adapted, and in many cases originated, literally dozens of techniques in glass making to vary effects of surface, color, texture, pattern, inner or outer coloring, plus layered or combined approaches. Color might be solid, gradated, mottled, pointillist, seemingly sprayed, swirled, striated, combed or otherwise patterned. The happenstance whereby a twist between two colors might converge to create an irregular design might readily provide the means to replicate some known configuration from nature. That Tiffany's studio was engaged continuously in the production of glass in sheets enabled a vast library of possibilities, which were designated by color categories and other criteria. As a given design required insertion of appropriate glass pieces, it was possible to access just the right piece to fit the section. The leaded borders between the pieces comprised an outline. It was necessary for the totality to read as the subject depicted, be it a lamp with a floral theme showing particular blossoms, or a landscape or portrait element treated in a window. Paradoxically, this practice can be understood as achieving verisimilitude by using, inherently abstract components.
Some of the special qualities in Tiffany's glass arose from his experimental practices, like smashing pre-existing colored sheets into fragments and stirring these into transparent molten glass. Depending on the cooling time, the dispersed elements might read as chips in the so-called confetti glass, or could produce more blurred effects. Likewise, thin rods of solid glass might be combined with still hot molten glass for certain designs. Tools were used to lift, drip, and virtually sculpt the still fluid glass. Textures might be elicited to produce a lizard skin quality, or hammered effects. Molten glass was manipulated to produce rivulet like textures or topographic effects as in the so called drapery glass which lent itself so well to suggesting angel's wings.
Tiffany's technicians became masters who took pride in their participation in what was conceived of as a collaborative endeavor to produce art geared toward a higher purpose: the betterment of the whole social level through exposure to beauty in everyday surroundings. One can envision that an almost religious aura held sway as Tiffany exerted a charismatic fascination on these artisans.
That Tiffany productions in glass are so hard to forge is an outgrowth of the collective originality of the studio's artisans. It would be impossible for the modern glassmaker to marshal Tiffany's resources without the cooperation of hundreds of workers over a multi-year period. It is quite right that these were not the works of one man alone, yet all are reflective of Tiffany's plan, his originality, and his sense of the "big picture" that made it possible to guide the creation of so many different types of pieces, maintaining high standards throughout, and on occasion creating truly stellar original pieces.
Tiffany Windows throughout the Region
Tiffany windows on Long Island are concentrated on the north shore in western Suffolk and Nassau. Created primarily for churches, they are particularly abundant also in Brooklyn, as well as the traditional resort areas of the south shore and a few locations in Queens. Since the production of these windows dates from mostly between 1890 and 1910 (the earliest L.I. examples, in St. Marks, Islip, date from 1878), their installation coincides with the wave of country house building, east of present day Queens. Windows in the more urban, developed areas to the west reflect the prominence that Brooklyn had established (pre-1900) as an independent "city of churches." The architectural context was chiefly amidst historicist styles, in the dominant modes of gothic, renaissance, or neo-classical revival. Yet, the Tiffany works comprise a more modern aesthetic compared to their surroundings, albeit with visual quotes or allegorical references to traditional subjects. Most of these structures already contained windows styled after prior modes of historicism, and were almost exclusively of European manufacture. It would have been the prevailing view that imported glass from England or Germany inherently denoted prestige, because of perceptions about their expense, quality of workmanship, and the re-assurance of the familiar. Just as Americans of the Gilded Age projected fantasies of country estate living on English models, their expectations of church environments corresponded. This was also the period of the Oxford movement which profoundly impacted the design of Episcopal churches, rendering them more "Roman" in feel, and consequently fuelling a vogue for colored glass decorative church windows. Narrative subjects came into vogue in such presentations. Although American Protestantism, exemplified in the Calvinist/Puritan/Congregational mode, had traditionally avoided interior embellishment and pictorial window design, a new-found desire to emulate the cathedrals of Europe affected even comparatively, humble churches to aspire to the spiritual uplift presumably induced by visual splendor. As this taste found favor with leaders of government, business, and society, the notion of richly decorated interiors became the norm. Hence such spaces often enhanced by Tiffany windows appeared in the edifices of other denominations as well.
On Long Island (including Brooklyn and Queens), a tour of Tiffany adorned churches would reveal the following: The First Presbyterian Church, in Brooklyn Heights, features a particularly outstanding suite of apostle subjects and the Lafayette Street Presbyterian Church, in Greenpoint, has a multi-figure treatment of St. Paul preaching in Athens against the backdrop of a Greek temple. Although renaissance styling is emphasized in both, Tiffany's landscape mode reappears in the Oyster Bay window at Lafayette St. (similar to an example at the Metropolitan Museum). At the Plymouth Church-Church of the Pilgrims, in Brooklyn Heights, a sequence of over sized windows in the parish hall feature Art Nouveau styled floral and abstract patterned designs. In Far Rockaway, at the southeastern corner of Queens, in the Sage Memorial Chapel (also Presbyterian), the spectacular Tree of Life window, Tiffany's largest landscape window, shows expressively articulated tree branches laden with sumptuous magnolia blossoms.
In Flushing, several New Testament themed windows are situated in St. George's Episcopal Church. There, the Tiffany windows are somewhat harder to identify because other nearby windows are "Tiffany-esque." Such manufacturers as the Lamb studios adapted Tiffany's characteristic drapery glass, dual colors from layered treatments, a variety of twirling motifs within the glass, and a preference for opalescent glass. Further confusion arises from the mistaken belief that Tiffany never painted the glass surfaces. That approach was normative in the 19th century, as it had been throughout the renaissance. It persisted as a dominant technique with most glass makers into the 19th century. Tiffany resorted to it minimally, yet it is manifest in most of his windows where, of necessity, it was used for such details as facial features like eyes and defining fingers and toes. Otherwise, Tiffany's shapes tended to be cut from discrete pieces of glass, with shading or the occasional telling detail contained therein as the result of chance effects in manufacture, and for that reason cut out from a larger panel so selected by the designer. When Tiffany's rivals chose to emulate him, they similarly favored areas of solidly colored glass.
There are several venues where seeing Tiffany windows in contrast to those by traditional glass makers allows their vast differences in approach to be most evident. In Cold Spring Harbor, at St. John's Church, three Tiffany windows, resplendent in a multiplicity of innovative techniques using solidly colored, and often sculpturally molded discrete glass elements, very Art Nouveau in attitude, are displayed on the left side of the church. Immediately opposite are three earlier traditional windows, not Tiffany, done chiefly in jewel-like tints of red and blue, which convey their imagery exclusively through painting applied to the surfaces. Similarly, in All Saints Church, Great Neck, Tiffany windows contrast their progressive, comparatively modern aesthetic, against the illusionist styling of the imported windows across the nave. One senses the possibility of stepping back to the years around the turn of the last century and witnessing a dialogue within such a church in which stylistic conservatives attempted to maintain sway against the forces of change. One may guess that the Tiffany windows then represented the contentious assertion that something of great aesthetic merit could be produced in America without relying on European prototypes.
Our tour of Long Island churches, in the quest for Tiffany windows, should also touch on two sites associated with the architect Stanford White: Trinity Episcopal Church in Roslyn (built by Mrs. Clarence Mackay) and St. James Church in St. James. There is an abundance of Tiffany windows in St. Marks Church, Islip, which was associated with the Vanderbilts in nearby Oakdale, and also in the Emmanuel Church in Great River, which was endowed by the Bayard Cuttings who lived nearby. Trinity Church in Northport permits a comparison of Tiffany windows in the Renaissance mode (one especially imitative of Raphael) versus those in Art Nouveau styling. This Long Island survey of Tiffany windows may extend to locations in Quogue, Southampton, Sag Harbor as well, and, if a contrast to windows reflecting the best of his contemporaneous avant-garde is desired, these may be found in Oyster Bay's Christ Church and the chapel on Shelter Island. Long Island does indeed possess treasures in glass, and especially its concentration of Tiffany which numbers better than 100 examples in at least 20 different settings.
Tiffany and the decorative avant-garde
Tiffany is positioned historically astride two movements of his time, the American Aesthetic movement, and Art Nouveau. What these shared was a common root in the English Arts and Crafts movement which held that the hand done was preferable to the machine made, an embrace of non-western design sources, especially Japanese, a sense of luxurious embellishment, and decorative elements most frequently found in nature. While medieval and renaissance stylistic quotes abounded in English Arts and Crafts and in the American Aesthetic movement, Art Nouveau had a more consistent focus in terms of its favored formal properties. What most historians presume to be Art Nouveau favors elongated sinuous lines, whiplash curves, vine like foliage, especially tendrils, a Japanese mode of flattened form, and a degree of abstraction arising out of silhouetted elements and patterned backgrounds of repeated shapes. These qualities, found most typically in the French versions of Art Nouveau, are very strong in Tiffany's work.
Tiffany was very involved with Siegfied Bing, who marketed his works in Europe especially at his gallery in Paris, L'Art Nouveau. There, Tiffany's productions were displayed with those of such artist-furniture makers as Galle, Majorelle, and Selmersheim. Bing was involved in commissioning Tiffany window designs in collaboration with Nabis artists such as Rouyssel, Vuillard, Bonnard, and Serusier, as well as Toulouse-Lautrec, and sold a Tiffany window to the Paris Musee d'Art Decoratif. Tiffany's decorative productions, in ceramic, silver, as well as glass stand comparison with those of Liberty of London, Archibald Knox, George Washington Maher, and a host of other artists in the international spirit of art nouveau.
Tiffany and Vanguard Tendencies in American Painting of His Time
Tiffany was attuned to his time in all phases of the visual arts. He understood the prevailing movements in painting from his perspective as an exhibiting artist, and his long involvement with institutions such as the National Academy of Design which accorded him the rank of full academician in 1881. There, he would have encountered initially the art of Hudson River painters, thereafter American Impressionists, and subsequently witnessed the struggle between the Ashcan school artists and the academics. He also would have observed the advent of American modernism around the time of the Armory show. His artistic curiosity and degree of acceptance of innovation in painting is evident from the roster of artists who ultimately enjoyed his patronage when he converted Laurelton Hall, ca. 1919 into an ongoing "artist in residence" program for emerging talent. Yet, seeing Tiffany's decorative art in context or comparison with the painting of his times, might suggest his preferences or at least his affinities. Knowing his history as an Orientalist painter, and the tendencies of its taste for decorative pattern and historic models from the middle east is an obvious point. What has been less emphasized, but needs consideration, is the link between the formal motifs in his stained glass lamp designs and those from the artistic mainstream of his era, whereby aspects of his work relate to Hudson River School, American Impressionism, and aspects in American modernism.
What these movements had in common was their distance from the narrative preoccupations of academic art and emphasis on defining themselves in stylistic terms (Impressionism and Modernism) or preoccupations with certain visual qualities (Hudson River/Luminism/Tonalism). In this exhibition, Cropsey's, Dawn of Morning, Lake George conveys a luminist preoccupation with dramatic lighting, portraying the glow of a sunrise reflected in a crystalline body of water, an effect not unlike that of light glowing through the tinted glass in one of Tiffany's lamps. Dewing's Music, ca. 1896-1900, with its tonalist qualities of subdued contrast in the lighting of figure versus background, close valued colors, and its nearly silhouetted forms, suggests the flattened manner of one of Tiffany's windows. Moreover, since Tiffany would sometimes use renaissance sources for some of his figures, the beaux arts element (otherwise not Tiffany's particular emphasis) may be seen as well. Augustus Vincent Tack's Canyon, ca. 1913, is perhaps the best example for comparison since its forms are virtually abstract, and like Tiffany's lamps, rely on the collective impact of quasi-abstract shapes when read together suggest the subject.
American Impressionist resonates with Tiffany's work because of its qualities of color, texture and pattern. Louis Ritman's Dormitory Breakfast, 1913, suggests Tiffany glass in the garden scene of massed sunlight flowers shown through a window. Hassam's, The Willows and the Bather features patterns of brushwork that almost suggest the interior speckled motifs in Tiffany's confetti glass and similar textures. Ritman's Reminiscence combines the vertical pattern of wallpaper (offset by an arched mirror and a floral bouquet), the geometric motif in the rug, stripes in the protagonists' skirt and an embroidered motif on the bedspread. Every area of the painting is composed with an eye to the interest evoked by rectilinear patterns against organic motifs - an approach Tiffany uses when intertwining flowers within a grid of lattice. Its sense of translucency played against the opaque likewise calls up stained glass effects. In Maurice Prendergast's Folly Cove, Gloucester, the strong colors, silhouetted shapes, and outlining of forms in blue suggests a cloisonné effect reminiscent of Gauguin and most thoroughly akin to that of stained glass. The quintessential parallel between Tiffany glass and American Impressionism is expressed in Robert Reid's The White Parasol, ca. 1907. Here the figure is totally surrounded by a composition of blossoms, a design that could have easily been adapted into one of Tiffany's lampshades.
Marsden Hartley's Cosmos, 1908-09, which dates from the earlier period of his work when he was digesting post-Impressionism, especially the work of Seurat, gives a motif of clouds, mountains, and trees conveyed as silhouetted rounded shapes, utterly flat, and integrated into the total composition, virtually knit into it through paint strokes each an individual color. The effect conveys shifting luminescent color within each form, reminding the viewer of the richness of Tiffany's palette. Though this work is at once prescient in that it looks forward to later abstract tendencies, it also looks back on Impressionism. Its manner of emphasizing the silhouette relates to the painting associated with the American Arts and Crafts movement as well as to Tiffany's approach in some of his landscape window.
Laurelton Hall exemplifies artist's lifework
Ultimately for Tiffany, his own total art work was his Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall, completed in 1905, of which little remains today in situ apart from remnants of stone entrance posts and driveways, a few remarkable Moroccan fantasy out buildings, and minaret like smoke stack on Laurel Hollow Beach. Its legendary main house, whose vast scale has been likened to several football fields layered over each other, was destroyed in fire, mostly, in 1957. Amidst its smoldering ruins, or at least out from them, came elements in the foremost collection of Tiffany, assembled by Hugh McKean, now in the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida. At this moment, Tiffany's repute was at its absolute nadir. Passed over by the stylistic episodes of Art Deco, and subsequent chapters of modernism, by the 1950's Tiffany's lamps and glass looked hopelessly old fashioned and were loaded together into the opprobrium cast indiscriminately on all 19th-century productions which betokened Victorian clutter and its presumed corollary, overly zealous embellishment. The slow revival began in the late 60s and exploded by the 80s and continues today, as Tiffany's practical side, in knowing how to get his art produced and marketed combined with his undeviating respect for high standards, sets a relevant example. As Tiffany remarked, "We are going after the money there is in art, but art is there all the same." (quoted in Joseph Purtell, The Tiffany Touch)
About the author:
Franklin Hill Perrell is the Nassau County Museum of Art's Chief Curator.
This essay was authored in conjunction with the exhibition Tiffany and the Gilded Age which opens on September 21, 2008 through January 4, 2009 at the Nassau County Museum of Art.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Ms. Doris Meadows, Nassau County Museum of Art, for assistance concerning the republishing of the above essay.
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