Editor's note: The The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on December 21, 2011 with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact the Nassau County Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
The Paintings of Louis Comfort Tiffany: Works from a Long Island Collection
December 10, 2011 - March 18, 2012
by Karl Emil Willers
Louis Comfort Tiffany's contributions to American art through the meticulously crafted glass lamps and windows produced by his workshop are well known and widely recognized, but the canvases he painted and drawings he sketched are far less familiar to even the most ardent Tiffany enthusiasts. The paintings gathered in this exhibition make it clear that Louis Comfort Tiffany's accomplishments in glass and decorative objects cannot be separated from an aesthetic germinating within and refined through a lifelong practice in painting. Throughout his career as a painter, Tiffany explored and experimented with many themes and a diversity of styles, ranging from landscapes that participate in American Luminism to figurative and still-life works that reveal a deep understanding of American Impressionism. The works on view convincingly reveal Louis Comfort Tiffany to be one of the foremost American practitioners of an Orientalist painting style, largely inspired by the artist's travels in North Africa. The extent to which this exposure to and celebration of a distinctly Islamic culture came to enhance and inform Tiffany's larger creative legacy has yet to be fully recognized.
Both Luminism and Impressionism were artistic movements that emerged from a fascination -- one might say an obsession -- with the effects of light. All vision is determined by the phenomenon of light -- the eye itself is, of course, a physical organ that has evolved and adapted to register and interpret the effects of light hitting material objects. All optics and all vision is, at its base, a study of light. Though Tiffany distinguishes his own practice from that of the "Moderns," modernity in the visual arts is particularly rooted within and constructed around the phenomena and science of light.
In turn, Tiffany adheres to a doctrine that specifically praises color over line or form or shape. He himself admits that, in this preference, he places himself within an aesthetic discourse that was theorized and codified as an opposition between Romantic and Classical traditions in the visual arts. At the simplest level, these (supposedly) opposing or contradictory artistic schools were described along the qualities of color versus line. In terms of French painting at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, this was shorthand for contrasting the practices of Gericault versus David, or Delacroix as opposed to Ingres. It is notable that such antitheses also largely divided, at the level of subject matter, along preferences for Eastern versus Western, or Oriental versus Occidental. When making such discriminations, Tiffany clearly locates himself and his painting as a champion of Romanticism, of the exotic East (or the sun-drenched South), of the foreign and oriental, and especially (and most importantly) of exuberant color and saturated hues. In this affiliation, Tiffany makes himself very clear. He places himself and his art as definitively in oppostition to those who profess a preference for outline or form or shape over color. Much artistic and philosophical discourse certainly takes issue with the world view that produces and enables such cut and dried differentiations. However, regardless of the degree to which such distinctions are valid, these were the terms upon which generations of European and American visual artists defined their work -- and in this Tiffany was no exception to the rule.
It is certainly not coincidental that Tiffany's primary interest in the subtle effects of light overlapped with an interest in rendering the seascapes of the Caribbean and the landscapes of North Africa. It can also be asserted that there is no surprise that this penchant for radiant illumination and chromatic saturation directly led Tiffany to the exploration and refinement of glass, a medium in which he concentrated so much of his creative energies and technical proficiency. The phenomenon of light passing through colored glass provides an optical sensation that the painted image can only simulate and never actually realize. Whether oil on canvas or watercolor on paper, light bounces and reflects off the painted surface -- the viewer is looking at the painting and not into the source of illumination. In contrast, when looking at a stained-glass window or lamp, light is refracted but nonetheless passing through the material and one gazes towards the actual source of light.
Much of what is best in Tiffany's painting is geared toward representing the subtle and unique variations of natural illumination -- thus the penchant for both glistening dawns and glowing dusks in these works, for atmospheric effects that are either adamantly clear and crisp or distinctly hazy and dusty. When utilizing colored pigments on a two-dimensional surface to accurately capture either natural outdoor or artificial interior effects of light, the strategic placement of darker silhouettes in the foreground produces the optical result of making higher-keyed passages -- often reserved for an expansive sky or sparkling sea or sunlit plaza -- appear all the more light filled or scintillating or brilliant. Alternatively, an overall brightness and intensity of palette can give the impression that the rectangle of a painted image, when hung within an interior, is a window or door onto a more brightly lit outdoor space. Tiffany understood and was adept at all such tricks-of-the-trade, and applied them with great virtuosity and skill. The use of varnishes to give the painting an overall evenness of surface that simulates the look of freshly-applied and still-wet paint was one such commonly used technique. However, such surface treatments, not to mention the ravages of time itself, can darken or obfuscate the subtle luminosity and radiance of pigments.
Tiffany was a man of few words -- there are only a handful of brief expositions that record his spoken remarks on art. Two of the most relevant commentaries were made to friends and colleagues -- the first on the occasion of Tiffany's birthday gathering in 1916 and the second to the Rembrandt Club of Brooklyn in 1917. The overarching theme of the first and the culminating emphasis of the second take up and champion the theme of beauty in art. Tiffany himself is quick to recognize that the concept of beauty can have many meanings, and is therefore difficult to pin down or to define with any precision or finality. However, within the realm of the visual, Tiffany's sense of the beautiful revolves and circulates around issues of perception and optics. Most appropriately, it is the sensitivities to the effects of light -- and by definition the spectrum of color by which the eye recognizes and interprets light -- that fascinates and interests Tiffany. He speaks to the possibilities for vision itself, of the phenomenon of light's ability to mesmerize and captivate and entice and beguile. All such emotive responses and sensual effects are made possible through the science and physiognomy of the eye, its receptivity and reaction to light.
Little by little and through a circuitous logic, it becomes
clear that Tiffany argues for contributions within visual arts that emerge
from artists being particularly attentive to the powerful properties of
light upon the optic nerve -- and, most importantly, the artist's ability
to effectively make the mesmerizing and absorbing possibilities of sight
come alive for and be present to spectators and audiences. In this regard,
Tiffany preaches a very current and contemporary aesthetics of communicative
exchange and collaborative association, based not only in the artist's abilities
of creativity and refinement but also in the viewer's powers of reception
and interpretation. It is therefore no surprise that Tiffany's conception
of vision frequently seeks expression in paintings that embrace the strange
and unfamiliar, and that this aesthetics ultimately resorts to the medium
of translucent or opalescent glass to anchor its expression.
About the author
Dr. Karl Emil Willers is Director of the Nassau County Museum of Art.
Resource Library editor's note:
The above text was reprinted in Resource Library on December 21, 2011, with permission of the Nassau County Museum of Art, which was granted to TFAO on December 20, 2011.
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Doris Meadows of the Nassau County Museum of Art for her help concerning permission for reprinting the above text.
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