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The Paintings of Louis Comfort Tiffany: Works from a Long Island Collection

December 10, 2011 - March 18, 2012

 

Drawn from an important Long Island collection, The Paintings of Louis Comfort Tiffany: Works from a Long Island Collection is a major exhibition that showcases approximately 125 oils and works on paper by Louis Comfort Tiffany, an American artist most closely associated with the Art Nouveau and Aesthetic movements. This exhibition, the first focusing on Tiffany's paintings to be seen in the New York metropolitan area since 1979 opens at Nassau County Museum of Art on December 10, 2011 and remains on view through March 18, 2012. Centered on Tiffany's paintings, which he created for himself to memorialize his travels and surroundings, The Paintings of Louis Comfort Tiffany offers an uncommon glimpse into the artist's personal world. The exhibition also includes some examples of Tiffany's decorative arts, especially stained glass lamps and windows.

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) created light-filled works suffused with Orientalism and employing sensuous Art Nouveau lines. Tiffany's paintings and decorative arts contrasted sharply with the era's prevailing dark Victorian décor and had a powerful influence on the evolving aesthetics of the wealthy and famous of the Gilded Age.

The approximately 125 paintings in the exhibition include many subjects inspired by his travels to the Middle East, among them, Camel Watering Hole; Luxor, Egypt; Travelers Near Cairo; and Temple of Ramses, Abu Simbel as well as subjects closer to home such as Pushing Off the Boat at Sea Bright, New Jersey and Cows in Pond or his much-loved Long Island home as seen in Fountain at Laurelton Hall and View of Laurelton Hall.

The museum will be offering several public programs in conjunction with this exhibition of Tiffany's paintings. Included are talks by Franklin Hill Perrell, the museum's former senior curator; Lindsy Parrott, the director of the Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass; a film about Tiffany that will be screened three times each day; and two Brown Bag Lectures followed by exhibition tours. For details, visit the museum's website, nassaumuseum.org/Events.

Please click here to read the Introduction to the exhibition by Dr. Karl Emil Willers, Director of the Nassau County Museum of Art.

 

Selected wall texts from the exhibition

 

My lifelong quest has always been in pursuit of beauty.
- Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1916
 

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848- 1933) was one of the most creative and prolific decorative artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. His father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, was the co-founder of Tiffany & Co., the still-prestigious silver and jewelry company, and was known in his day as the "King of Diamonds." Louis Tiffany was exposed to fine design and beautiful craftsmanship from an early age but, as he grew older, he became determined not to follow in his father's footsteps as a jeweler, and instead followed his own path. He left school at the age of 18 and began his art studies informally, studying first with George Inness (1825-1894), a landscape painter of the Hudson River School, and then with Samuel Colman (1832-1920), a famed landscape watercolorist. Both Inness and Colman were more interested in conveying the emotional effects of color and dramatic light rather than a detailed description of a scene. At the age of 20, Tiffany left New York to study in Paris, where he met Léon Belly (1827-1877), a painter of Islamic genre scenes whose work significantly influenced Tiffany's own work. At 22, he made his first trip to the Near East, a trip which also seems to have included southern Spain, Malta, and probably the coast of Italy. The first paintings from Tiffany's travels in North Africa were publicly exhibited in November 1871 in New York, and the following years brought a profusion of oils and watercolors from the Near East. These works were well received by the public and critics, part of the craze for all things exotic, or orientalism, in the late 19th century. In the 1880's Tiffany experimented further with technique and subject matter in his paintings, turning to American subjects, the Hudson Valley, his father's home near Irvington, New York, the shore near Sea Bright, New Jersey, and even travels to the West. Many of these reflect an interest in the effects of painting outdoors and capturing the changing qualities of outdoor light with the broken brushwork, flattened perspective, and high-keyed palette associated with American Luminism and Impressionism. By the early 1890's Tiffany renewed his interest in still life, painting flowers in natural settings or arranged with other objects, adding these to an astonishing variety of subjects -- genre, landscape, figure painting, architecture, animal painting and always, travel sketches.

 

Tiffany and the Orient

Almost half of the paintings in this exhibition depict scenes from what was known in the late 19th century as the "Orient," defined then as the accessible but still exotic regions bordering the Mediterranean Sea, especially those countries between Egypt and Greece, facing east. For America, the late 19th century was a complex and formative period, as the country emerged from the devastation of the Civil War and began to find its place amongst what were considered the "civilized" nations of the world. As Americans proceeded along their path to progress, they encountered rapid industrialization, territorial expansion, and economic upheaval. Victorian values were being eroded by the changes, and along with it, the roles of men and women in society. In this era of transformation, the Orient offered opportunities to revisit the past. In many of these images, the views are close enough to recall the general shape of things, but not too close to be uncomfortable, more picturesque than ethnographic, and depict what was once the norm in America -- a society closely tied to the natural environment, people coming together in marketplaces to exchange goods and gossip far from industrial conglomerates. On the other hand, some technological advances, such as the steamship, made travel to exotic places faster and more comfortable. By the last quarter of the 19th century, when Tiffany made his first journey to North Africa, a brisk business in luxury tours had developed and many travelers, writers, thinkers, and artists recorded their adventures in sketches and photographs, a visual experience that could then be eagerly enjoyed by armchair tourists at home.

 

Laurelton Hall

Tiffany was not an architect, but the Cold Spring Harbor mansion he designed in 1906 was as stunning as anything designed by a professional, and the grandest of all Tiffany's efforts to achieve exotic, sensuous surroundings. Once ranked among the nation's showplaces, it is now only legend, having been destroyed by fire in 1957. Laurelton Hall was sprawling stucco palace the size of an ocean liner: 280 feet long, 84 rooms, 25 bathrooms. Guests marveled at the stained glass galleries, the booming pipe organ, the museum-quality collections of Native American and Oriental art. Interiors exploded in color, from purple and blue mosaic columns to a dining room dome made of colored glass patterned on the rugs below, all dominated by a three-story octagonal court covered with a blue glass dome. Built into a hillside, the house opened onto gardens filled with exotic vegetation and a cascade produced by the estate's own water system; the design an amazing marriage of 19th century romanticism and 20th century engineering that never failed to impress.

 

Selected object labels from the exhibition

Frederick Wilson for Tiffany Studios
Allegories of the Seasons, n.d.
Gouache on paper
Private Collection

Frederick Wilson (1858-1932) was one of Tiffany Studio's leading designers and head of their Ecclesiastical Department from 1893 until he left the firm in 1920. It is likely that Wilson designed hundreds of windows in his 27 years with Tiffany. These studies on paper called -- "cartoons" are allegories of the seasons and depict Winter, Spring and Autumn. The finished windows of Summer and Autumn are owned by the Driehaus Collection, Chicago; the others remain unlocated.

 

Pilgrimage to Mecca
after Léon Adolphe August Belly,
Les Pèlerins partant pour La Mecque, 1890
Oil on canvas
Private Collection

During Tiffany's time in Europe in the late 1860's, he had the opportunity to meet Léon Belly (1827-1877), famed French Orientalist painter. Although Tiffany never studied with Belly, he was deeply influenced by his work, evident in this copy of Belly's painting, Les Pèlerins partant pour La Mecque or Pilgrimage to Mecca, (1861) currently in the collection of the Musée D'Orsay in Paris. Belly exhibited this work at that year's Paris Salon, and achieved the highest honor, a first class medal, for his painting. The only notable difference in Tiffany's version is his focus on the color and light within the scene, rather than the details of the figures.

 

Shanty Town, 1878
Pencil and gouache on brown paper
Private Collection

Tiffany made a several paintings of urban life throughout his travels in the United States, including this unfinished piece. The outline of the composition has been sketched, but only the sky and sunlight have been painted in. As with his other paintings in this genre, Tiffany chose an unglamorous neighborhood in New York: a shanty town at 42nd Street between Fifth and Fourth (now Park) Avenues. Tiffany's notation at the bottom of the sheet indicates that the drawing illustrates the way the area looked before Madison Avenue was extended above 42nd Street, so Tiffany must have painted it from memory or a photograph.

 

Market Day, Quimper, Brittany, 1922
Oil on canvas
Private Collection

Tiffany made several trips to Brittany throughout his life. Two of his most notable visits were "sketching tours" of the region in 1878 with fellow artist Samuel Colman (1832-1920) and in 1907 with Tiffany Studios designer Clara Driscoll (1861-1944). This oil on canvas of a market in Quimper is similar to street scenes that Tiffany both photographed and painted during his travels.

 

Pushing Off the Boat at Sea Bright, New Jersey, 1887
Oil on canvas
Private Collection

Tiffany seems to have been particularly proud of this painting. He submitted the canvas twice, once in 1888 to the National Academy of Design Annual Exhibition and also to the 1889 Exposition Universelle held in Paris. The composition and subject are reminiscent of similar paintings by Tiffany's contemporary Winslow Homer (1836-1910), who was fascinated with the theme of man versus nature. The photograph below illustrates Tiffany's use of photography in preparing his compositions; there are many such photographs that were taken on his trip to Sea Bright in 1887.

 

Untitled (Pyramids at Giza), n.d.
Oil on canvas
Private Collection

The lure of the exotic inspired Tiffany to paint numerous "desert and dromedary" paintings as one 19th- century critic dubbed them. This scene depicts the Giza plateau, part of the necropolis of ancient Memphis in the southwest area of Cairo. The ruins of 35 pyramids still stand near the Nile River in Egypt; some of the most famous were built 4,500 years ago. Scholars believe that the pyramid shape had religious meaning for Egyptians that the sloping sides were a reminder of the slanting rays of the sun, by which the souls of the king could climb to the sky and join the gods. The monochromatic quality of this oil painting is punctuated by the colorful saddle blankets on the camels.

 

Near Eastern Interior, n.d.
Watercolor and pencil on paper
Private Collection

Louis Comfort Tiffany's travels to North Africa and Egypt in the 1870's were a transformative experience. He was particularly drawn to the brilliant light and color of the Orient - the textures, patterns and shapes found in textiles, buildings, interior decoration, and even gardens. All of these recur throughout his career, particularly in the design of his Long Island home, Laurelton Hall, as well as in the stained glass designs that made him a household name. This study exemplifies his sense of inspiration from the cultures of the Near East.

 

Selected images from the exhibition

 

(above: Louis Comfort Tiffany, Camel Watering Hole, n.d., Oil on canvas, 29 x 39 inches. Private Collection)

 

(above: Louis Comfort Tiffany, Luxor, Egypt, 1908, Watercolor on board, 19 x 13.25 inches. Private Collection)

 

(above: Louis Comfort Tiffany, Pushing Off the Boat at Sea Bright, New Jersey, 1887, Oil on canvas, 23 x 35 inches. Private Collection)

 

(above: Louis Comfort Tiffany, Seated Nude at Lily Pond, n.d., Oil on canvas, 27 x 23 inches. Private Collection)

 

Additional Images

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