Louis Comfort Tiffany: Creator, Artist, and Pioneer
“I have always striven to fix beauty in wood, stone, glass or pottery, in oil or watercolor by using whatever seemed fittest for the expression of beauty, that has been my creed.” -- Louis Comfort Tiffany
Louis Comfort Tiffany was truly the epitome of a Renaissance man during the Gilded Age, spanning from the 1870s to the mid-1920s. As an artist of many media and decorative arts in his lengthy career, his work spanned and shaped several design periods during a time of experimentation, intense scrutiny of aesthetic ideals, and proliferation of new styles in the world of art. Throughout his career, he forged a unique style that combined superb craftsmanship with a love of natural forms and brilliant color. His luminous glass designs combined technical innovations with the highest artistry, infusing everyday objects with beauty, deeply inspired by his love of nature.
Born in New York City, Louis Comfort Tiffany was the eldest son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder of Tiffany & Co. Raised in an atmosphere of tremendous wealth and expensive taste, Tiffany was a natural aesthete, and opted against joining his father's company, in favor of studying the fine arts. He continued to paint, but in time, made his own mark across the decorative arena—there was hardly a medium to which he did not turn, including furniture, metalwork, textiles, pottery, enamels, jewelry, and book design. Tiffany also became intensely interested in the artistic possibilities of glass in the late 1870s, employing it throughout his career.
A major participant of the Aesthetic Movement, Tiffany drew upon historical sources and was attracted to the arts of exotic places, such as China, Japan, ancient Greece, Egypt, Venice, India, and the Islamic world. He likewise responded to the tenets of contemporary British reform movements, emulating the practices of British designer William Morris, and appreciated the fine craftsmanship championed by the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Tiffany's many travels to Europe and the Near East were influential in his choices as a glassmaker. He was especially inspired by Gothic stained glass windows, Persian glass, English cameo, the idea of imitating in glass natural stones such as agate, and the iridescence found in excavated ancient Syrian and Roman glass. Tiffany was critical of the contemporary practice of painting on glass, which he felt obscured the innate qualities of glass. He sought to maximize the potential of the medium itself, developing new methods resulting in iridescent finishes, lava glass, and his most important innovation, Favrile glass. Favrile glass—a term Louis Comfort Tiffany invented from the Latin fabrilis, meaning handmade—is produced by exposing molten glass to a series of vapors and metallic oxides that infuse it with radiant colors and iridescence. The name, as it applied to his own product, was trademarked in 1894. By this point, Tiffany had opened a new glass factory in Corona, Queens, and had begun marketing his Favrile windows, lamps, vases and mosaics in America, as well as in Europe.
In 1878, Tiffany designed his first interior—for his own home, where he lived with his wife and three children. Hardly a surface was left plain: Eastern rugs were scattered across floors; Japanese patterned papers were affixed to walls and ceilings; carved and painted woodwork from India served as architectural embellishment for windows; colored and leaded glass filled window openings; and pictures and objects of various styles and media, including pottery, porcelain, and metalwork from China and Japan, were arranged throughout. Much of the furniture was remarkably simple, a foil for the proliferation of ornament. "Louis C. Tiffany and Associated Artists" was founded in 1879, the first of several decorating partnerships. Tiffany joined forces with the American painter, Samuel Colman, who suggested colors and patterns for walls and ceilings. Lockwood de Forest, an artist and collector of Indian artifacts, provided carved woodwork and furniture. Candace Wheeler created textiles and embroidery to Tiffany's designs. Tiffany himself, who specialized in glass, remained in charge of the overall design process. The firm enjoyed great success, counting among its clients such prominent figures as President Chester Arthur, pharmaceuticals millionaire George Kemp, elder statesman Hamilton Fish, president of the Metropolitan Museum John Taylor Johnston, author Mark Twain, and the Veterans of New York's Seventh Regiment Armory.
After 1883, Louis Comfort Tiffany worked primarily on his own. In 1885, he completed work on his second home, in a massive McKim, Mead, and White-designed Romanesque revival building at Seventy-Second Street and Madison Avenue, commissioned by his father. Tiffany's top floor studio was perhaps the most startling room, with its theatrical and cave-like appearance, unique four-sided central fireplace, and a forest of glass lanterns of various shapes and colors suspended from the ceiling. Tiffany continued to work on residential, public, and ecclesiastical interiors to a far greater extent than many have assumed. One of the most remarkable commissions was for the home of two of his most important patrons, Louisine and Henry Osborne Havemeyer. Their house on East Sixty-Sixth Street, completed in 1892, was replete with glowing iridescent glass-mosaic walls, lighting fixtures of Near Eastern derivation, elaborate filigreed balustrades and fireplace screens, and a dramatic suspended staircase. Tiffany was responsible for every decorative element, enhancing the unified effect. His artisans and designers mastered the techniques needed to produce and decorate objects in metal, wood, glass, fabric, and wallpaper, and became manufacturers of rugs, glass mosaics, lighting fixtures, and ornamental cast bronzes.
Louis Comfort Tiffany's creativity peaked as Art Nouveau burst on the scene in Europe in the mid-1890s. The primary proponent of Art Nouveau in America, Tiffany's work exemplified the movement's aims to develop a new aesthetic based in nature. While the French and Belgian Art Nouveau artists abstracted nature into sinuous curves, and the Viennese and Scottish experimented with geometric abstraction, Tiffany sought to depict the colors and forms of nature in a more straightforward, impressionistic manner. His lily lamps follow nature's logic, with petals and leaves on the shade and stems, and stalks on the base, while his "Agate" and "Lava" glass vases closely approximate the appearance of other natural materials. Far from resulting in a simplified version of Art Nouveau themes, however, Tiffany's glass is invariably complex in composition and appearance.
What began as formal interpretations of nature grew into a love of lush naturalism, and as his artistic career progressed, he became increasingly preoccupied by illusionistic depictions of landscapes and flowers. His was not an intellectual approach to art; rather it was a sensory one, providing feasts of color, light, and texture. Post-Civil War prosperity produced patrons who were not merely rich, but also cultured, and who shared an aptitude for experimentation. They were poised for Louis Comfort Tiffany, who coupled his artistic ambitions with a unique marketing ability that enabled him to publicize his wares to an extent that was formerly unknown in America. Tiffany utilized the great international fairs of the late-19th century as promotional vehicles for his artistic work. He first exhibited his oil paintings at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, and later at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, however, that was a watershed event in Tiffany's career. Over a million people visited his exhibit, which was the subject of numerous accounts in the press and the catalyst for many new commissions. During that period, the famed Parisian dealer Siegfried Bing saw Tiffany's work, and his assessment of it led to his sponsorship of Tiffany in Paris, and throughout Europe.
Louis Comfort Tiffany continued to make strong showings and receive awards at international fairs, notably Paris in 1900, Buffalo in 1901, Turin in 1902, and St. Louis in 1904. As a result, his work was widely-known and acclaimed throughout America, and around the world. Early institutional collectors of Tiffany's glasswork included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, Tokyo's Imperial Museum, and many other museums around the world. His stained glass windows can still be found in many of America's oldest colleges and universities, among them Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Vassar, and Wellesley, as well as the Smithsonian and the Chicago Art Institute.
While Tiffany Studios New York primarily manufactured glass for lamps, vases and windows, it also produced objects in copper and bronze collectively called “Fancy Goods” in his catalogues. Also inspired by nature, his metalwork designs were used for candelabras, desk sets, picture frames, and other objects, and often incorporated glass elements.
When Louis Comfort Tiffany took over as vice president and artistic director of Tiffany & Co. after his father's death in 1902, Tiffany Studios New York also began producing jewelry, primarily using semi-precious stones and enamels, and retaining the Studios' primary motifs of plants and insects. An autocratic perfectionist, Louis Comfort Tiffany was known to walk down the production lines with his cane and strike any piece that he found unacceptable. And yet, he always had an eye on the bottom line, and would cease production of any item that went unsold for one year.
Shortly after the First World War, tastes shifted dramatically away from Art Nouveau and toward the sparer Bauhaus aesthetic. With the concomitant loss of revenue, as well as the decline in fortune due to his lifestyle and his Foundation, Tiffany Studios New York declared bankruptcy in 1932. Louis Comfort Tiffany died in 1933 in New York, in relative obscurity. It was not until over two decades later, in the late 1950s, that scholars and collectors began rediscovering Tiffany's work, and jump-started the process of resurrecting his reputation as an artist, innovator, and pioneer of modernism as he is now known today.