Seeing the full range of Tiffany’s Favrile glass vase production is very rare and such a unique opportunity is presented at the Tiffany Masterworks exhibition organized by the Huntington Library in Pasadena, CA. On view until Feb 26th, 2018.
As Louis Comfort Tiffany mixes both decorative arts and jewelry, it comes as no surprise that I have spent a fair amount dealing and researching his multi-faceted art.
Before 1900, Tiffany’s expertise was in elitist and full interior designs for rich patrons like the Havemeyers. Quite adept at transforming a utilitarian object into a jewel-like work of art, he nevertheless soon felt such projects and subsequent large decorative lead-glass windows too fin-de-siècle Fine Arts and too exclusive for his business acumen.
Smaller scale luxury goods such as jewellery, lamps and vases seemed more appropriate displays of his technical virtuosity and opened a wider consumer market. It was also fitting with Tiffany’s endeavour to infiltrate American homes with objects both useful and beautiful , much in keeping with the Arts & Crafts philosophy developed by William Morris (upon Ruskin’s ideas) in the UK.
Tiffany’s affinity for glass (« the most beautiful of all jewels ») also framed his ambition within the inherent contradictions of Art Nouveau.
In jewelry, he neglected costly diamonds, emeralds and rubies, preferring cheaper stones displaying phenomena such as the play of color of opals, the adularescence of moonstones or the more pastel colors of Montana sapphires and peridots.
By making luxury wares which looked costly and of gemstone appearance despite being glass imitations, Tiffany found that glass had Ruskin’s « purity of material » in spite of its impure nature and relatively low value.
Witness this Agate vase (#26): 360 view on the same vase, showing amazing glass work recreating the variegated colors of banded agate using a glass-layering technique then ground back with polishing wheels to reveal distinctive cut-out effects.
Or this vase adorned with a lace-like bronze frame, reminiscent of the most intricate of gothic tracery which fuses many of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s interests in decorative arts and demonstrates cross-pollination between his stained-glass window designs but also his lamps and vases. It is also an attempt to show full unity of form in the Art Nouveau sense: the bronze vase stand reinstate the flower stems and roots which the opacity of the vase hides.
As an accomplished American Impressionist painter privileged enough to travel to Europe but also Egypt and Tangier between 1865 and 1870, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s vision of colours was permanently altered by the richly contrasting stained-glass windows of medieval churches and the vibrant sun-kissed hues of the Muslim world. Set on infusing his art with such « atmospheric colours », Tiffany found glass a more truthful and versatile medium than paint.
His patented Favrile glass (derived from « fabricate » meaning handmade) embedded colour in the material itself because he disavowed medieval techniques of painting on glass. Instead, he started « painting with glass ».
Tiffany also found sources of inspiration in ancient Greek and Roman glass vessels unearthed in Cyprus.
Buried underground, these artefacts had developed a singular iridescence due to natural chemical alteration and oxidation.
Tiffany’s challenge soon became to recreate such effects in his own Cypriote glass collection, relishing in the bubbling texture that potassium salts would bring or the peacock feather iridescence that acid fumes would create.
In keeping with the emerging Art Nouveau style he would come to epitomise in America, Tiffany chose Nature and his own gardens as a source of constant inspiration. Striving to make his art « Nouveau », Louis Comfort Tiffany nevertheless preferred a reinterpretation of Nature to the botanical copying of the realistic enamel flower brooches his father Charles created with jeweller Paulding Farnham.
As such, as blossoms carrousel around his vases as if Nature had been neatly trimmed following a pattern, his millefiori vases are « hardly garden-like ».
In the Art Interchange of c.1900, Hallowell referred to such technique as « conventionalizing », « where forms of Nature must be simplified…put in orderly pattern…so arranged that the decorative qualities are adapted to the material to be used».
Glass as a manufactured material is molten sand, lime and soda ash which when cooled rapidly, prevents an organized arrangement of atoms known as crystallization. Instead, glass adopts an irregularity of structure called amorphous and it is the lack of definition in the thermo-dynamic transition between its liquid and solid states which makes glass almost unpredictable in the colours and effects that additives will create.
As such, the decorative art of Tiffany encapsulates the opposing forces within Art Nouveau: crystallizing rampant plants in millefiori vases, conventionalizing natural growth with manufactured glass Jack-in-the-Pulpit vases and creating an aesthetic whole based on the randomness of its material and subject.
Each hue and mottled effect is the result of Tiffany Furnaces experimenting on glass until a 5000-rich palette of colours, varying translucency and textures be obtained. Darker purplish blues are due to cobalt additives while a small amount of manganese oxide infuses white glass with lilac mottling and copper produces a turquoise coloration.
Yet, glassmaking cannot be a hobby. It’s an industrialised process that Tiffany harnessed when he set up Tiffany Furnaces, and as such it’s a pragmatic disagreement with Morris’ view of « production by machinery as evil ».
As Tiffany’s large lead-glass windows produced literally stocks of scrap pieces, he realised that such by-products, « things of daily use like lamps (…) reach a wider public than do paintings and sculpture (…) and makes the « decorative » arts more important to a nation than the « fine » arts ». This presented an opportunity for Tiffany as creative artist to accomplish both commercial and aesthetic success with his lamps and vases, still a rare combination more than 100 years ago.
Within Art Nouveau, Tiffany achieved what Escritt termed « industrial craft production ». How he made use of gas bubbles, typically forming as glass cools quickly, to whimsically replicate the aquatic world of goldfish in a pond is testament to how ingenuously defects or “accidental effects” were seen as artistic opportunities.
Embracing modern industry against Art Nouveau suspicions, Tiffany Studios were run with precise division of labour protocols due to the still « overwhelmingly handmade » glass selection, copper foil wrapping, assembling and soldering necessary to fulfil rising demand generated by visionary product placement and exports to the like of Bing’s Art Nouveau gallery in Paris.
With each vase and decorative glass object, Tiffany imposed American Art Nouveau as he brought a miniature glass luxury inspired by Nature and «American aesthetics» inside homes.
As a colourist, Tiffany was convinced that people saw colour before they saw form or shape, that « the sovereign importance of colour is only beginning to be realised in modern times…Today, we are beginning to realise that light vibrations have a subjective power and affect the mind and soul, producing feelings and ideas of their own in the recipient brain ».
This was to be Tiffany’s legacy to the modern world and modern art : the « accidental effects » and semi-abstractions of colours he so treasured in glassmaking were presaging the Abstract Expressionism movement yet to come.
Flowerform, Byzantine, Cypriote, Aquamarine, Peacock, Agate, Lava, Cameo and Miniature: all these types of Tiffany vases are currently on view at the Huntington Library as part of the Collection of Stanley and Dolores Sirott. Until Feb 26th, 2018.
© 2017 Ingrid Westlake
All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.
 Rebel in Glass, Robert Koch, 1964, Crown Publishers
 Vivienne Couldrey, The Art of Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1989, Wellfleet Press., p.25.
 Quote from Hugh McKean, painter at Laurelton Hall (Tiffany’s residence).
 Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen on Louis Comfort Tiffany, http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/tiff/hd_tiff.htm
 Martin Eidelberg – Nature is always beautiful –The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Eidelberg, Frelinghuysen, McClelland and Rachen, 2005, The Vendome Press, p.60.
 Melvyn Bragg – Science of Glass podcast, May 27, 2015
 Rebel in Glass, Robert Koch, 1964, Crown Publishers
 Art Nouveau, Stephen Escritt, 2000, Phaidon, chapter 7.
 Martin Eidelberg – Creating a Tiffany lampshade –The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Eidelberg, Frelinghuysen, McClelland and Rachen, 2005, The Vendome Press, p.80.
 Clara and Mr. Tiffany, Susan Vreeland, 2011, Random House.
 NY Times article, 7/24/98, Roberta Smith
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