The work of decorative artist Louis Comfort Tiffany can be seen all over the world today. A new exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York celebrates both the art and the man behind it - one of the first American artists to make an impact overseas.
The Tiffany name is most closely associated with Tiffany and Company, the internationally renowned jewelry and silver retailer founded by Charles Tiffany in 1837. But it is Charles' son, Louis Comfort Tiffany, who is the subject of the new exhibition.
Although a gifted painter, the younger Tiffany made his name in the decorative arts. Metropolitan Museum curator Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen says the American artist realized at a relatively young age that his connection to a prominent retailer afforded him a unique and potentially lucrative opportunity to combine art with commerce. "By the end of the 1880s, he determined that there was more in decorations than in painting pictures, and so he began to decorate interiors and began to work in stained glass," said Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen. "He started his interiors with his own homes. A New York apartment first, then a larger mansion that his father commissioned. That was the start of an illustrious career decorating public buildings, commercial buildings, theaters and churches primarily and residences."
Louis Comfort Tiffany's venture paid off. At the turn of the century, he had ascended to the vice-presidency of his father's company, and his stained glass windows, ornate lamps, furniture, glasswork and jewelry were making him one of the most successful decorative artists of his time.
The results of his prodigious career are evident at the Metropolitan exhibit. The examples of Tiffany's stained-glass showcase his ground-breaking work in the medium. Unlike stained-glass artists before him, Tiffany rarely painted the glass rather, he manipulated it in its molten state to alter both its texture and its color. The result is a rich, natural image more reminiscent of an impressionist painting than a church window.
The blown-glass vases on display fluid shapes whose colors change depending on the light and angle - are equally innovative, as are the examples of his jewelry, mosaics, and furniture. All demonstrate his attention to the minutest details.
Marla Prather, a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, says that, on the business side, Tiffany's decision to leave painting behind was crucial to his success and helped him gain international exposure. "Because he was involved in the world of decorative arts, and he was producing a great deal, a great more volume, say, than an artist who painted, that the works were disseminated further and wider," said Marla Prather.
In fact, according to Ms. Frelinghuysen of the Metropolitan Museum, Louis Comfort Tiffany's work traveled further and wider than most every American artist before him. "He was one of the first Americans to achieve any substantial recognition internationally,' she said. "At the time when he was making, even in the early years of making blown glass and stained glass windows, they were being sold and almost more avidly collected abroad. In Paris, in London, in Munich, in Vienna, even in Tokyo. It was a tremendous influence on the artists and artisans working in those cities."
Louis Comfort Tiffany died in 1933. His work adorns thousands of churches, galleries and private homes the world over, not least of all, the Metropolitan Museum of Art itself, which assembled the most comprehensive collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany jewelry and glasswork in the world.