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A Closer Look at the Dragonfly

In their various iterations, dating from 1906 and before, dragonfly lamps were among the earliest, most popular, and most costly of Tiffany Studios' designs. Tiffany’s headlamp designer, Clara Driscoll had the idea one fateful summer in 1898.

Tiffany Studios New York Miniature "Dragonfly" Table Lamp

April 6,1899: "This Dragonfly lamp is an idea that I had last summer and which Alice [Gouvy] worked out on a plaster mould... After she had made the drawing on this plaster mould I took it in hand and we worked and worked on it till the cost built up at such a rate that they had to mark it $250.00 when it was finished and everybody, even Mr. Belknap, thought it was impractical on account of the cost, but... then Mr. Mitchell and Mr. Belknap said--It is very original and makes talk, so perhaps it is not a bad investment. Then Mr. Tiffany got well and came down and said it was the most interesting lamp in the place and then a rich woman bought it and then Mr. Tiffany said she couldn't have it, he wanted it to go to London and have another one made for her and one to go to Paris. So they asked me to estimate four more... 'on condition that we can have one of them in a week. I told him that I should have to step very lively if I did and... that of course, it would make a difference to make so large a number but that I could let him know in half an hour. Then I rushed upstairs and [spoke to the] men who have a part in it, the one who puts the glass together with solder, the one who does the metal work-burner base, and the one who does the etching on the wings after we have made the pattern for him to work by. We found that among us we could come down $5.00 a lamp or $20.00 on the entire estimate, with safety and even profit (we hope) so it was settled, and now comes a race. We are to work early and late and I hope it will be done. The girls have entered into the spirit of it and two of them are coming early (an hour) this morning


‘Dragonfly-woman’ corsage ornament, René Lalique, c.1897-98, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum

The dragonfly was a leitmotif of Art Nouveau, suggesting the transformability of the human and the natural. Artists saw it as a symbol of the women’s metamorphosis from a natural state to a position of power, to the femme fatale, a cult figure of the period. Louis Tiffany encountered the creature and explored its form and significance throughout his childhood and artistic life, beginning as a youngster who sketched au Plein air in the woods and wetlands surrounding his father’s summer house. At Tiffany & Co., Louis encountered dragonflies in the metalwork of Edward C. Moore, who was strongly inspired by the Katsushika Hokusai’s woodblock prints and their evocative views into the minute worlds of butterflies, dragonflies, and grasshoppers. 

Pitcher, 1878, Edward C. Moore, Art Institute of Chicago

At his Laurelton Hall estate, an artwork of nature coaxed into form over decades, Tiffany observed these insects in the teeming saltwater marshes and wetlands of Oyster Bay. The dragonfly’s iridescent wings, lustrous, metallic body, and wetland habitat of blues and greens embodied many of Louis’ fascinations with the ephemeral phenomena of color and light. Dragonflies served as inspiration in a variety of Louis’ most notable lamps, as well as a remarkable early jewel, the dragonfly hair ornament in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 Since Tiffany Studio artisans were given the freedom to select particular textures, patterns, hues, tones, and saturations of the glass they would use for each shade, the lamps are unique in subtle ways. Among this lamp’s particular charms is the dichroism of its shade. The reddish amber dichroism of the green glass, an innovative effect achieved through the addition of minute amounts of silver and gold, is readily seen when the shade is viewed from within. In addition, beautiful and subtle features enhance its interior and are evident on closer inspection. The interior coppered lead surfaces of the shade were gilded, enhancing the shade’s light transmission and golden brightness. Further, the risers spiral in whiplash curves up to the light cluster, and are enhanced with exotic shell motifs where they join the columnar base. With its stylized naturalism, restrained palette, innovative glass, subtle shading, and early gilt surface, the lamp is a unified work of beauty.

Left: Victoria amazonica, Amazon Water Lily, NCSU, Right: Tiffany Studios New York Miniature "Dragonfly" Base Detail

For the structure of the base, Tiffany was inspired by the Amazon Water Lily (Victoria amazonica). The plant had recently come to the collection of the New York Botanical Garden, of which Tiffany was a board member. The plant was seen as a prime example of sacred geometry in nature, an example of god’s perfection, and a curiosity for its exotic origins. The lily, with ribbed under surface and leaves veining "like transverse girders and supports", was Paxton's inspiration for the Crystal Palace (1851), a building four times the size of St. Peter's in Rome.

Medium Dragonfly

Tiffany Studios New York “Dragonfly” Table Lamp

A favorite emblem of the samurai, the dragonfly was known as katsu-mushi (victorious insect) and was respected for its hunting technique: flying directly forward toward its prey, never wavering from its path. Samurai were abolished as a class after the Meiji Restoration of 1868, flooding the market with historically significant armor sets. Louis Comfort Tiffany was an ardent collector of samurai armor, particularly those featuring dragonflies as their helmet crest (maedate). Tiffany kept the armor in a den in his garden estate Laurelton Hall along with Japanese flower arrangements (ikebana).

View of Japanese armor in den, Laurelton Hall, ca. 1920s. Gelatin silver print, 81/8×10 in. (20.5×25.4 cm). Photograph by David Aronow. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Robert Koch 

To catch a dragonfly, Japanese children practice a form of hypnotism. After getting up close, they make an Uzumaki (spiral) in the air with their finger around the dragonfly’s head. In a moment of distraction, they cup the dragonfly in their hand. 

Left: Dragonfly Mosaic Base detail, Macklowe Gallery, Right: War Hat (Jingasa) of the Ogasawara Family, 18th-19th century, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Japan’s original name was Akitsushima, also known as the Isle of the Dragonfly. According to legend, Japan’s first emperor, Emperor Jimmu, scaled the Nara mountain to survey the Seto Inland Sea he now controlled. Jimmu remarked that it was shaped like the “heart” rings made by mating dragonflies or akitsu. 

1. Inrō with Dragonflies, Kōami Nagataka, 18th century 2. Knife Handle (Kozuka), mid-17th century 3. Sword Guard (Tsuba), 18th century 4. Sword Guard (Tsuba) With the Motif of Dragonfly in Grapevine

The dragonfly was accordingly, a common motif of the tsuba, the Japanese sword guard. The tsuba balanced the sword, protecting the hand of the sword holder from the enemy. The dragonfly tsuba alluded to another meaning of the Japanese word for dragonfly: to suddenly change direction. This agility and willingness to adapt was a skill that samurai embodied on the battlefield. 

Large- Drophead Dragonfly 

Tiffany Studios New York "Drophead Dragonfly" Floor Lamp

At the turn of the century, Clara Driscoll, head of the women’s glass cutting department and the brains behind some of Tiffany’s most iconic shades introduced the “Drophead Dragonfly” to the world. Unable to cut the pieces of glass small enough to give the desired lacy effect to the wings of the dragonfly, Driscoll came up with the idea of using a brass filigree overlay that would be soldered over top of the glass wings, giving a much more intricate appearance.

Top Left: Iron mold and pressed glass jewel, Leo Popper & Sons, NYC, Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass. Top Right: Photograph of Dragonfly, Louis Comfort Tiffany, Morse Museum of American Art Middle: Ripple Glass, Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass. Bottom Left: Filigree used for Dragonfly shades, Clara Driscoll, New York Historical Society, Bottom Right: Assorted Glass Jewels, Neustadt

These filigrees had previously been used on smaller decorative items but were a new concept in lamp design. The Dragonfly became one of Tiffany’s first recorded leaded shades, shown as early as 1899 by Art Nouveau tastemaker Siegfried Bing at Grafton Galleries in London The design won her the bronze medal at the 1900 world's fair a year later.

Exhibition poster, 1899 L’Art Nouveau S. Bing Tiffany Art Glass Grafton Galleries, London, Victoria and Albert Museum

As the son of Tiffany & Co-founder Charles Lewis Tiffany, jewels to Louis Comfort Tiffany were as water is to a fish. It is no wonder with this background that Tiffany made the bold decision to employ Leo Popper & Sons of New York City as its producer of glass jewels Popper was founded in 1880 to produce imitation stones for costume jewelry, and Tiffany’s entrepreneurial prowess saw the possibility of using jewels in leaded glass shades. On the subject, Tiffany wrote: 

Top:  Louis Comfort Tiffany, Design for Tiffany Dragonfly Lamp, Watercolor, Gouache on paper, 1900, Mark Murray Gallery, Middle Left: Henri Edmond Cross, 1909, Cap Nègre, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Middle Right: Pressed glass jewel, Leo Popper & Sons, NYC, Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass, Bottom Left: Templates for 22-inch Dragonfly shade, model 1507, Clara Driscoll, Stamped sheet brass, New York Historical Society, Bottom Right: Ripple Glass Fragment, Corning Museum of Glass

“Anyone who has seen the great rose windows of Chartres has, intuitively or otherwise, understood the relationship between glass and jewels. Designed to refract light prismatically, and placed to raise heads beatifically, they resemble nothing so much as magnificent celestial jewels.” 


Topaz Indian Collar, 1904, Tiffany & Co, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany, The International Studio, v.30 (November 1906), xxxii).

It was likely for this reason that model no. 1507 was Tiffany’s favorite. More than any of its variants, the shade was spangled with a wide assortment of cabochon topaz glass jewels, a quality shared with his contemporaneous explorations in the Tiffany & Co-Artistic Jewelry department. An Indian collar produced by Tiffany in 1904 consisted of 22 movable box settings in between, each section set with a cabochon cut topaz.

Tiffany’s topaz and collar pendants were reproductions of Indian necklaces in his collection, but where the originals chose moonstone, Tiffany chose topaz. Tiffany & Co’s head gemologist George Frederick Kunz relayed ancient lore to Tiffany, ingraining in his mind the illustrious history of the stone. Ancient Egyptians termed the stone “thehen” or “yellow stone” and with them composed amulets to the gods. The topaz was to tiffany the jewel of the orient. In that same year, a hairpin based on Tiffany’s photograph of a dragonfly specimen was exhibited at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, bringing Tiffany’s dragonfly jewelry to the firm’s portfolio.

Dragonfly Hairpin, exhibited by Louis Comfort Tiffany at the 1904 St. Louis Exposition, Vogue ; New York Vol. 24, Iss. 22, (Dec 1, 1904): 702.


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