Global Influence Found in the Works of Louis Comfort Tiffany
With a steady hand on the pulse of its major city, and one of history’s keenest eyes for the native flora and fauna that surrounded it, Louis Comfort Tiffany was born, raised, and laid to rest as a true New Yorker. The factories that created his famed Favrile glass resided in New York City’s major boroughs, and his beloved estate was built from scratch just up the Hudson. His family’s eponymous empire was founded and came to fame in Manhattan, and his very artistic beginnings were in New York's best academies.
Louis Comfort Tiffany and Louise Wakeman Knox, on the Delaware and Lehigh Canals in Pennsylvania, 1886
Though much of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s oeuvre honors his dear home, just as much of his work reflects an abiding love of international travel, and a devotion to incorporating foreign influence into his pieces. A student of international style, Tiffany—like his father—was a chevalier of the French Legion of Honour, an honorary member of the National Society of Fine Arts in Paris and of the Imperial Society of Fine Arts, Tokyo. What the Morse Museum of Art describes as Tiffany’s “dumbfounding versatility” is perhaps most evident in the arena of these internationally influenced designs, which he executes with such precision as to faithfully honor the cultures that inspired them. In addition to mastering those international styles that were modish at the time, Louis Comfort Tiffany studied, surveyed, and captured the beauty of ancient geography and centuries-old visual traditions from across the globe. The fidelity with which his work reflects its foreign influences serves as evidence that the prodigious maker paid diligent attention to the artistic heritage of locales far afield from his native New York.
Louis Comfort Tiffany on the Miami Beachfront, 1930
Louis Comfort Tiffany did pay mind to those international flavors that were in vogue in his day, but executed designs of such influence, with a distinct finesse, that set him apart from his contemporaries. An example of such work would be the “Lotus Bell” table lamp, a piece inspired by the Japanese parasols, “Wagasa,” and by the Japanese reverence for the lotus flower. Mimicking the delicacy of both the wax paper sunshade and the milky white bloom, the Lotus Bell lamp, which emits a compassionate, warm light, is a perfectly balanced composition, an ode to the culture that inspired it. Such interest in Japanese culture and aesthetics blossomed in the West after the 1858 opening of Japan to international trade (insert link to Japonisme Collection here), prompting a movement called “Japonisme” that overtook the then-modern artistic tendencies, and inspired such movements as Impressionism and Fauvism and the work of masters like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, René Lalique, Émile Gallé, and Tiffany himself.
As masterfully as Louis Comfort Tiffany captured the looks of the day, he excelled equally in his exploration of bygone times in other foreign locales. Though the British Arts & Crafts movement was in full swing during Tiffany’s era, his eye was seemingly more drawn to the aesthetics of earlier times in English history. The “Elizabethan” table lamp by Tiffany Studios New York captures the architectural facets of the period with the same name with a faithfulness that reveals a scholarly devotion. With the ribbon-like motifs of 16th century “strapwork” that resemble large wooden beams in Elizabethan architecture, as well as the opulence of color that characterized glass in Catholic cathedrals of the time, are mimicked in the lamp’s rich art glass shade.
Some of the sites that stole Louis Comfort Tiffany’s heart were those that he visited personally, such as Northern Africa, with a particular attraction to the archaeological marvels in Egypt. Proof positive of his great love and assiduous study of the wonders of this ancient world is the “Tell el-Amarna” Favrile glass vase, designed by Tiffany and executed by Tiffany Studios New York. With an iridescent blue body and a brilliant cobalt blue foot and rim, the piece features an Egyptian-inspired grey and white motif that came to be known as the "Tell el-Amarna'' pattern. The incredible hue of this attractive vase was inspired by the blue glazed pottery found at the "Tell el-Amarna'' archeological site in Egypt, which unearthed the forgotten, ancient Egyptian city of Akhetaton in 1887.
Many of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s greatest creations were born out of an admiration for a foreign aesthetic native to a location he longed to visit, but never could. One such place was the great state of India, then under British rule, but faithfully maintaining its vibrant millennia-old visual customs. It seems that the Indian tradition that most excited Tiffany was the use of Henna, or “Mehndi,” in Hindi, which was applied in intricate patterning to young brides’ hands and feet before her wedding day. A cooling paste, the Mehndi is meant to act as a de-stressing agent for the bride. It is said that the darker the Mehndi, the more the bride’s husband and in-laws will love her, and the longer it lasts, the longer the bride is spared the responsibilities of housework, which are only to begin after the dye fades. With this in mind, it is quite logical but telling of a careful appreciation for custom that Tiffany, in his creation of the Mehndi-inspired covered box, chose dark, reddish brown hues for the lines that adorn the box in elaborate patterns, and carved them deeply into the surface of the piece, so that they look as though they will last forever.
Other locales that Louis Comfort Tiffany explored in his lifetime include Southern Spain and Southern Italy, both of which inspired masterpieces specific to the great monuments, whether they be architectural or geographical, of the region. In Italy, he was mesmerized by the volcanic ruins of Mount Etna in Sicily, providing him with the visual suggestion needed to create the well celebrated and much sought after “Lava” vases. Made with highly specialized glass forms, the Lava vases feature beautiful, flowing, undulating patterns of iridescent glass that appear to be running over speckled earthen tones, imitating the dispersion of molten lava over the earth’s crust.
In Spain, Louis Comfort Tiffany found himself particularly taken with the architecture of the 9th century Moorish palace of La Alhambra in Granada. So taken, in fact, that he would later model the fountain court of his home at Laurelton Hall after the Court of the Lions at the Moorish palace.
Laurelton Hall Reception Fountain Court, circa 1908
The Laurelton Hall fountain court, which was later described as "the soul of the house," by Tiffany Studios scholars, was filled with arabesque texturing in the walls that created domed, stylized shelves called "muqarnas," a traditionally Moorish architectural feature. Tiffany so loved the muqarnas walls that he designed Favrile glass forms to fit in the indentations, and, later still, Favrile glass shades, like those in this chandelier, to mimic and complement their shape.
With an eye for excellence in period pieces, Louis Comfort Tiffany often borrowed from the heights of historical aesthetics. A rare, but remarkable, example of his adoption of the Baroque style is this exciting pair of Andirons, which would easily be at home in the France of Louis XIV, the so-called “Sun King.” In fact, later in life, Louis Comfort Tiffany is known to have toured the Loire Valley, immortalizing his journey in his treasured sketchbook. Of particular influence to him were the "wrought iron" gates and grates of French palace architecture, and two chateaux that he is known to have visited were the Château d'Amboise (the resting place of Da Vinci) and the Château de Blois. Their sinuous curves and elaborate ornamentation are echoed in the andiron's filigree work and lion's paw bases.
Currently in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a very special piece that demonstrates Louis Comfort Tiffany’s love and sensitivity towards the traditional artwork found in the American West, specifically those pieces created by the Native American population. This stunning chandelier was specially designed to hang in the home of Robert and Emily de Forest, in Cold Spring Harbor, New York—across the harbor from Laurelton Hall, Tiffany's beloved country estate. Emily de Forest recalled that her husband had asked Tiffany for a floral shade, to which he responded, "That is not what you need for your hall, you need an Indian Basket." Tiffany’s love of the craft art of the American West is well documented not just in his artistic oeuvre but also by notable scholars.
Finally, Tiffany would never ignore the beauty of his beloved home, New York State. His impressive gardens served as the basis for his botanical studies, which in turn became blooming pieces of glass. Among his most impressive technical feats and solidly placed within the collection of his most beautiful pieces is the “Jack in the Pulpit” vase. The Favrile glass creation by Tiffany Studios New York begins with a bulbous base in deep hues of striated, swirling iridescent blue. Shooting upward from the base is an elongated, narrow neck of similar coloration, darkening in hue as it ascends. From the narrow neck explodes an outward facing glass that blooms in brilliant hues of green, bright blue, purple, orange and gold, all made to shimmer by the undulations in the bloom's outer edges. Jack in the Pulpit is an impressive flower in its own right, and, of course, native to New York.