Tiffany's Oriental Poppy: An Impressionist Masterpiece
Oriental Poppy Senior Floor Lamp, Macklowe Gallery
Tiffany, Monet & Sargent
Tiffany’s 26-inch oriental poppy is a marvel of design. The lamp astounds with its vermillion and green color palette, a mainstay of the impressionist landscape. Tiffany’s citation of Monet and Sargent as “masters” in his contemporaneous biography spoke to their influence on both his painting and glasswork. In his early years, Tiffany was an avid follower of Monet’s work. Tiffany & Co had maintained offices in Paris since 1868, and Tiffany had henceforth made regular visits.
In the Summer of 1874, Tiffany experienced the buzz of the Paris Art World after Monet had shown his masterpiece “Poppy Field” in the first Impressionist Exhibition. The photography studio where the exhibition had taken place was but a twelve-minute walk from Tiffany & Co’s offices at the time, and word traveled quickly. Similitudes can easily be drawn between Monet’s “Poppy Field (1874)” and Tiffany’s “At Irvington (1879).” Both used the wife and son as subjects, and smatterings of broken floral brushwork. Between “At Irvington” and other Plein air studies made at Tiffany’s spring estates, the impact of “Style Monet” is keenly felt.
Tiffany’s connection to Sargent was perhaps more deeply rooted. In 1879, Tiffany and textile designer Candace Wheeler connected over their shared love of painting. With a shared vision, the duo founded the Associated Artists, which created dreamy interiors for the next four years. After its dissolution in ‘83, Tiffany and Wheeler maintained a close personal relationship.
Wheeler championed William Morris’ Arts and Crafts style in NYC, introducing it to Associated Artist's repertoire. In thanks, Morris invited Wheeler and Sargent to the English village of Broadway in the Cotswolds. Candace, her daughter Dora, and Sargent spent five weeks together painting at the historic Russell House. It was in this period that Sargent completed his landmark piece “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.” According to an 1886 newspaper clipping, her daughter Dora was a freelance stained glass designer for Tiffany Studios at the time, bringing the color of the English countryside into the firm’s work.
In preparation for his work, Sargent painted a study of Scarlet Opium Poppies. When comparing the color palettes of the lamp and Sargent, the similarities are palpable. Blue and mottled greens pull the eye back and forth creating a dreamy atmosphere. While Ultramarine was previously only accessible for expensive court commissions, the synthetic alternative "French Ultramarine" democratized the color. Its comparative accessibility allowed middle class painters to use the color liberally in plein air paintings.
The Oriental Poppy's designer, Clara Driscoll was brought on some years after Dora Wheeler, as head of the Women’s Glasscutting Department. Driscoll debuted the lamp in 1913, the same year as the coveted “Elaborate Peony.” Tiffany's trend towards intricacy can be seen as a combination of the ornamentalism of Morris and the naturalism of Sargent.
Clara and Dora shared their passion for women's issues, as shown by their essays in the 1900 Report of the Art Committee of the General Federation of Women's clubs. Dora wrote on “Women as Painters,” while Driscoll wrote on “Glass Mosaics.” Inspired by the socialist ideas of Morris, both women shared a desire to form a congenial and profitable sorority of female artists apart from Tiffany. As employees of Louis Comfort Tiffany, both Dora and Clara were overshadowed by men in their time. But through their designs and sense of color, were able to create a masterpiece equivalent to their male counterparts.
Tiffany and Opium Culture
Tiffany Studios included two species of poppies in their lamps, Papaver rhoeas (field poppy) and Papaver somniferum, (opium poppy). The first poppy used by the firm was the field poppy. Used in the Wiremesh Poppy (model no. 1531) from 1900-1906, the flower often alluded to agrarian/pastoral roots. Since antiquity, the wheat stalk and field poppy were the symbols of Demeter, Greek goddess of agriculture. Maligned by wheat farmers for spoiling the harvest but irresistible to artists for its fragile beauty, the poppy was well loved for its duality.
The Papaver somniferum (opium poppy) was introduced to Tiffany Studios in 1906 as model no. 1598. As a narcotic, a precognitive aid for occultists, medication, and an ornamental plant, the opium poppy became the everlasting symbol of Art Nouveau. Coinciding with Europe's colonial expansion and the Orientalist movement, the opium poppy was seen as the window into the subconscious and a metaphor for the mystery of the East.
In his Gentleman’s smoking room, Tiffany displayed “The Dream” a monumental painting of an Opium Smoker’s hallucinations. Within its frame, a “nightmarish horde” of dragons, sex workers, and samurai threatens a prostrate man, an allusion to the temptation of Buddha. Visitors were aghast at Louis’ readiness to display this vision to his thirteen-year-old daughter Dorothy, even if intended as a warning, Eventually, he took his easel and transformed a plume of smoke from hookah into a billowing cloud, “dimming the horrors.
Tiffany’s preoccupation with the culture and aesthetics of opium extended into his Interior Design work. The real estate tycoon Frank Havens hired Tiffany to design the interiors of his lavish California mansion Wildwood (1901), including an opium den to entertain Bay Area Bohemians. Intriguing still was the warped truth behind their conceptions of opium dens and underground Chinatown life.
In her letters, the composer Alma Mahler recounted one of Tiffany’s eventful drug-filled dinners. Alma is perhaps best described as the woman who launched a thousand works of art, having romantic entanglements with the era’s leading composers, designers and artists, namely Bauhaus founder Walter Gropius, composer (and husband) Gustav Mahler, and painters Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka.
Tiffany was a board member on the New York Philharmonic and had asked Alma's husband Gustav Mahler to allow him to secretly observe their rehearsals. In thanks, Tiffany threw a soirée for the power couple. During the dinner, Tiffany had Wagner’s Parsifal played on the Organ while clouded in a smoke of hashish, a traditional form of cannabis. Like many of his cohorts, Tiffany had picked up the predilection on his trip to Morroco.
After a hazy dinner of music and pipe-smoking, Tiffany and an “NYC detective” took the Mahlers on a tour of the Lower East Side. Visits of this type were a practice called “slumming,” whereby the city’s elite took tours of impoverished neighborhoods. Alma’s self-described “NYC detective” was likely the king of slumming tour guides, Chuck Connors. Connors’ tours were incredibly popular amongst the tycoons and magnates of the gilded age. To satisfy his gullible clients, he hired Chinese actors to play drug addicts in faux opium dens. Alma recalled the party watching the addicts strung out on bunk beds and stretchers like “loaves of bread at a bakery.” After being suitably apalled, they were taken onto Mott Street to witness a staged “shootout” between “Chinese gangsters.” Tour groups came away from the experience with nary an inkling that it had been entirely manufactured. The practice found such popularity in London, San Francisco and NYC that laws were eventually passed to clear these actors from the streets.
The Oriental Poppy lamp perfectly encapsulates Tiffany's place within Art History. An orientalist and impressionist in his early painting carreer, a design traditionalist from his association with Morris, and a showman in his private life, Tiffany remains just as multifaceted as this alluring flower.