Louis Comfort Tiffany was one of this country's greatest artists and just about the first to make a big splash abroad. After his smash success at the 1893 Chicago world's fair, museums across Europe rushed to acquire his glass. Americans were just as eager: In 1896, the New York sugar baron H.O. Havemeyer presented 56 Tiffany pieces to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
"Tiffany: Color and Light," a major new survey of the master's work, is now at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond, its only American venue. It gives a fine overview of Tiffany's glorious vases, leaded-glass lamps and work in stained glass.
It also lets us in on something strange: Tiffany was not an artist in the traditional sense. The man responsible for some of the most innovative handicrafts ever created barely set his hands on the objects he signed. The man who gave new life to blown glass never blew glass; he didn't even come up with the iridescent surfaces that were his trademark. The man whose lamps went on to inspire the lighting in restaurant chains across America entrusted their design to a team of uncredited women.
None of this makes Tiffany a less important figure. On the contrary, it makes him a true radical. Instead of working in any of the traditional materials of art or craft, he worked in material that was more original, and more exquisitely American, than that. His art supplies were other people; the masterpiece he built with them was a corporate entity called Tiffany Studios. Each of the tens of thousands of objects that entity turned out was just a small part of the total work.
Tiffany learned his corporate craft at his father's knee. In 1837, Charles Lewis Tiffany founded a little stationery and fancy-goods shop that grew into the great silver and jewelry emporium of Tiffany & Co. The father's money helped fund many of the son's ventures. Tiffany Sr.'s moneyed customers were natural clients for Tiffany Jr.'s wilder offerings. When Tiffany & Co. started to have a lavish presence at world's fairs, the son's Tiffany Studios could mount a display nearby and share in the attention.
Making a mark
Louis made a stab at rebellion. In the late 1860s, he trained in Paris as a painter but never made a mark. He only came into his own back in New York a decade later, with a shift into interior decor. Tiffany crafted eclectic, over-the-top interiors that mixed Victorian exoticism (rafters hung with Middle Eastern lamps and pots, Persian carpets on top of elaborately tiled floors) with arts and crafts nostalgia (pseudo-medieval stained glass and hobbit-ish carved wood).
One of the most impressive objects in this survey is from that period and comes from the 30-something Tiffany working more like a fine artist than he ever would again. For the lavish vestibule of his own home Tiffany made a stained-glass window that could count as an ancestor of modern abstraction. Using pieces of sheet glass, he built a composition that was nothing more than a bizarre swirl of shapes and hues. Lacking any kind of ornamental structure, it has an avant-garde edge.
The next time Tiffany came up with something that original, it was under his more corporate umbrella. After a tour through Europe in 1889, and exposure to the innovative glassware of Emile Gallé, Tiffany came home and founded a glassmaking factory. To run it, he hired a pioneering British glass technician named Arthur Nash. Nash's experiments in iridescence captured the look of antique glass dug up after centuries. His colors were denser and more varied than almost anyone's. His amalgamations of hot glass gave stunningly varied effects.
Under the guidance of Nash, and the corporate supervision of Tiffany, hired glassblowers came up with designs that were bold yet stunningly graceful. They jettisoned the fussy hand-cutting and curlicues of so much earlier glass. They replaced it with asymmetrical, nature-inspired forms that foreshadow the biomorphs and streamlined shapes of the 20th century.
And they weren't afraid to go ugly. A tiny, pearlescent bud vase looks like melting glop. It's one of this show's gems. The vessels from the company's "Lava" line are gloriously wacky: They take fields of a foamy black glass that looks like molten stone, melt on smooth ripples that could almost be a dark mother-of-pearl, then throw in glass blobs and a few swipes of gold.
These masterpieces weren't the work of Tiffany. They were definitely the work of "Tiffany," a collective of designers and makers given various amounts of leeway by the corporate master who oversaw them. He also worked out a business model to support their experiments.
Nash and his underlings deserve a lot more credit than they originally got. But "Tiffany" wouldn't have existed, as a powerful force in the history of art, without Tiffany.
Of course, any businessman knows that to survive long term, you need a range of product lines.
At Tiffany Studios, there was Nash's fantastic glass, trademarked Favrile. But there were also lines so different from Favrile that, in any normal case, they couldn't be from the hands of the same artist -- and of course, in the case of "Tiffany," they weren't.
I find Favrile irresistible. I'm not sure I've seen a piece of Tiffany stained glass I could stand, except for that early abstract panel. Where the best of Favrile seems to float above its era, its stained-glass cousins look dated and Victorian, fussy and genteel. The designer of the best of them, a Tiffany employee named Frederick Wilson, was a minor disciple of some of Britain's stodgier pre-Raphaelite painters. The Richmond show includes a series of his windows from a recently deconsecrated church in Montreal. Looked at from very close, their innovations amaze: They use folded glass to represent rippling fabrics and layers of dappled "confetti" glass for foliage. But once you're far enough away to see the pictures as a whole, you want to turn away.
(Disclosure: I may have a bias. Every Sunday morning through my teenage years, I took care of the toddlers at the church next door to my parents. That's where this exhibition's windows come from. It was not a pleasant feeling to enter a gallery in Richmond, 30 years and 700 miles from my adolescent self, only to find Jesus and his disciples staring me down once again. They made me want to deny, for the umpteenth time, that I was the one glimpsed necking with a girl in the chapel.)
I feel just as cool toward Tiffany's leaded-glass lamps. After Tiffany introduced the line in 1897, the American public went mad for it, and the lamps became crucial to his bottom line. Even the most absurdly luxurious models of these hand-made lamps, which could go for $600 -- more than a Tiffany worker might earn in a year -- were produced by the hundreds, thanks to the Women's Glass Cutting Department that designed and made them. The cheaper versions ended up in homes across the country, and for about 40 years, thanks to knockoffs, in every T.G.I. Friday's.
I'm more impressed by Tiffany's ability to sell his lamps than by the products themselves. I like to think of them as part of Tiffany's great work as a corporate performance artist. In an age of industrial production, Louis Comfort Tiffany took the public's nostalgia for one-off objects coming from a single maker's hand and eye, and satisfied it with a range of products by a man he advertised as "Tiffany."