Egyptomania, Ancient Scarabs, and Louis Comfort Tiffany
In 1871, a bright-eyed twenty-three-year-old Louis Comfort Tiffany made his first of many trips to the East, accompanied by the Hudson River School painter Robert Swain Gifford (1840-1905). Tiffany stayed within the boundaries of Cairo during his stay and frequented Khan el-Khalili, the famous bazaar in the city’s historic center. During one such visit, he acquired a dried scarab necklace, which served as inspiration for his favrile glass beetle jewelry for Tiffany & Co. Unlike traditional Egyptian stylizations, scarab elytra specimens bear pronounced grooves, a feature that Tiffany artfully recreated in favrile glass.
Left: Vitrine with Near Eastern Jewelry (Scarab necklace circled), Second story of Fountain Court, David Aronow, 1924, Historic American Buildings Survey, Library of Congress, Right: Scarab Beetle Panchlada, acquired 1871, Courtesy of Lillian Nassau
Beetle elytra has been used in jewelry in a myriad of cultures — from the Mughals to the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and Ecuador. Tiffany’s Egyptian necklace appears to be an Egyptian variant of the Mughal Panchlada (five-strand) necklace. The Panchlada was the royal marriage jewelry of Medieval India, originally made for the royal Mughal and Nawabi families of the Deccan. Such necklaces were composed of materials ranging from silver, Basra pearls, gold, and precious gems. The number and richness of the materials used in a multi-strand necklace were used to index the social and economic status of the family. Strand counts ranged from four (chavlada) at the lowest to seven (satlada) at the highest. The practice of using jewel beetle elytra as embellishments for both jewelry and paintings in India is thought to have its origins in the art of elytra embroidery, a technique used in the turbans and wedding attire of the Maharajas.
Nearly 40 years after his first visit, Louis Comfort Tiffany took his twin daughters on a pleasure trip up the Nile. Tiffany chartered the Dahabeah Nepthis from Thomas Cook and Son, a steel-hulled passenger steamboat with lateen sails. The company provided the country’s first high-end steamboats, furnishing the cabins with everything necessary to ensure not only the comfort but the luxuries of a Nile voyage. The voyage even included souvenir passenger lists, so that fellow passengers could reference a "Who's who?" for their ride.
Left: Scarabs found in Tell el Amarna, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, Methuen & Company, 1894, Princeton University, Right: Blue Faience Scarabs, New Kingdom, Dynasty 18, Joint reign of Hatshepsut and Thutmose III, ca. 1479–1458 B.C., Metropolitan Museum of Art
Tiffany frequently stopped the captain to moor upon the banks, often disappearing for hours at a time to paint the ruins. For the first time, Tiffany painted monuments of Karnak, Luxor, and Abu Simbel. His first stop was to Telel-Amarna, 194 miles south of Cairo. Akhenaten, Egypt’s first pharaoh, built the city as Egypt’s capital city. The site was replete with thousands of terracotta pottery molds and blue faience scarabs. Tiffany wondered at the parallels between his modern factory production and the mass production of three millennia prior. In Chronologies of Glassmaking published by Tiffany Studios, Egypt was regularly cited as being integral to the medium’s development. On a spiritual level, blue (irtyu) to the ancient Egyptians was the color of the heavens. The blue of the Nile’s waters drew a parallel with the primeval waters of chaos (nun). As a result, the color blue was associated with fertility, rebirth, and the power of creation. Tiffany brought home a group of blue faience scarabs to New York. With much effort on the part of his chemists, Tiffany introduced Tel-el-Amarna blue glass to the world to much acclaim in May of 1909, matching in color, if not exceeding the original article.
Left: Tiffany's daughters, Mary, Julia, and Dorothy at his Egyptian Costume Fete of 1913, Aimé Dupont, New York, Right: Pedro Cordoba and Hedwig Reicher as Anthony and Cleopatra
Four years after his trip to Egypt, Tiffany celebrated the ancient civilization with his legendary Egyptian Fete on February 4, 1913. Invitations in the form of sealed papyrus scrolls had been hand-delivered to the 400 guests in hieroglyphics and English and guests were instructed to come as Egyptians, nomad tribesmen, Greeks, Persians, Ethiopians, Romans, Syrians, east Indians, or Arabs. Tiffany presided over the entire celebration as an Ottoman potentate. The pantomime was organized by Joseph Lindon Smith, the archaeological illustrator of the expeditions of Giza and the Valley of the Kings. Marc Anthony (played by actor Pedro de Cordoba) brought a selection of favrile glass wares to an expectant Cleopatra (played by Broadway star and suffragette Hedwig Reicher). The music was composed by Theodore Steinway and played by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Costumes were made to pass authenticity to by a committee made of experts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Notable attendees included Robert de Forest, president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, John and Abigail Rockefeller, and Dorothy Roosevelt.
Left: Winged scarab, Late Period–Ptolemaic Period, 664–30 B.C., Faience, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Right: Design book page, c. 1914–33, Watercolor, ink, pencil on paper, Meta K. Overbeck, 1879–1936, Morse Museum of American Art
In celebration of his Egyptian Fete, Meta Overbeck, head designer of the Art Jewelry department at Tiffany & Co., designed a series of Egyptian jewels on behalf of Louis Comfort. The jewels featured a series of Egyptian jewelry forms and motifs, from the menat (keyhole amulet) to the winged scarab of the sun god Ra. Often referred to as dung beetles, scarab beetles held significant symbolism in Ancient Egypt. These beetles, known for crafting spherical manure balls in which they deposited their eggs, were believed by the Ancient Egyptians to emulate the daily journey of the sun across the sky, a duty they associated with the god Khepri. The movements of the sun, and consequently the scarab beetle, were seen as representations of the circle of life, immortality, rebirth, transformation, and growth. Consequently, the scarab was regarded as an exceptionally potent symbol capable of providing protection and good fortune, which accounts for its enduring use in jewelry, personal adornments, funerary art, and amulets.
Louis Comfort Tiffany's enduring connection to Egypt and the scarab beetle is a testament to the enduring appeal of ancient cultures and the interplay of art, history, and nature in shaping the creative spirit. Tiffany's journey to Egypt, his artistic innovations, and the Egyptian Fete collectively symbolize a bridge between the past and the present, reminding us of the timeless allure of the ancient world and the power of artistic expression to bring it to life once more.