“The Art of Louis Comfort Tiffany” Exhibition at Roanoke’s Taubman Museum of Art Highlights Tiffany’s Expansive Creative Powers
By James D. Balestrieri
Louis Comfort Tiffany’s father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, was one of the co-founders of Tiffany & Co., a name we still associate the with finest decorative arts, silver, jewelry, and glass. But son Louis had other ideas. He wanted to make a life as a painter.
Tiffany, born in New York City in 1848, studied with two of the best American painters of the age: George Inness and Samuel Colman, second generation Hudson River School painters whose interest in the effects of light, as opposed to the representation of reality, caused them to be called Luminists.
Light would become Tiffany’s passion.
At age 20, Tiffany made a journey to Europe to further his education, working with Léon Adolphe Auguste Belly in Paris. Belly was known for Islamist genre scenes—then described as Orientalist—of North African people and places. These paintings inspired Tiffany to make his own way through Southern Europe and eventually to Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. On his return home, Tiffany exhibited his Near East canvases to great acclaim; he then began to paint his native Hudson Valley in every genre and light, adapting his style to Impressionism and Art Nouveau, as those became dominant approaches in American art and design.
Despite his popularity as a painter, Tiffany never saw himself as a success. After 1875, though he never stopped painting, he turned to designing the decorative creations for which his father’s firm was famous. In Europe and the Near East, Tiffany had seen and marveled at Byzantine mosaics and Gothic stained glass. He saw the light he sought in his paintings shining through the glass and reflecting off the polished and gilded mosaic tiles. Painted glass was the preferred technique of the day. However, Tiffany craved transparency and translucency, and he surrounded himself with men and women who could help him achieve these qualities. The inception of Art Nouveau brought sinuous arabesques and natural forms to the fore. The result? Lush, elegant Tiffany windows and Tiffany lamps, adorned with flowers, vines, berries, and dragonflies.
“The Art of Louis Comfort Tiffany: From the Nassau County Museum of Art with The Neustadt Collection and the Collection of Susan S. and David R. Goode,” on view at the Taubman Museum of Art, April 14–August 13, 2023, has a number of beautiful examples of Tiffany glass. The true purpose of the exhibition, however, is to rediscover Louis Comfort Tiffany as a painter, excavating the training and travels that gave rise to some exceptional canvases. Despite his own feelings about his work, Tiffany was an outstanding painter, one whose desire to transcend light caused him to transcend painting itself. In the end, Tiffany’s stained glass windows are an extension of his art on canvas, while his art on canvas emerges as an outstanding, necessary prelude to his work in glass.
Tiffany rarely dated his paintings. We assume that the European and North African pieces date from his foreign travels and shortly thereafter. Similarly, major paintings of the Hudson Valley and the East Coast would seem to date from the years after his return from abroad. It is certain, though, that he continued to travel widely throughout his life—and to paint what he saw and felt.
Untitled (Bodrum, Turkey) seems like a relatively early painting, an example of high academic realism applied to what was then an exotic subject. Not at all Luminist—at least not at first—the painting is nevertheless luminous, composed of a harmonious arrangement of thin, vertical triangular shapes—the sails and spires—against a horizontal triangle of land that narrows from lower left to the distant hills at right. From a busy center, Tiffany opens the painting; blue bay nearly meets an expansive blue sky. Take away the ships, and you would be left with a Colman, or, perhaps, a work by one of the other Luminists like Suydam or Bricher. Tiffany, as ever, is looking for more, adding forms, mixing genres, looking to absorb and transcend his peers and teachers.
In Untitled (Pyramids at Giza), by contrast, Tiffany paints this wonder of the world as his mentors, Colman and Inness, might have, concerning himself with the tonality of the overall composition rather than the details of the scene’s elements. On the page, Pyramids at Giza reads like a small painting, perhaps a field study to be worked up in the studio into something approximating Bodrum, Turkey. In fact, Pyramids at Giza is a fairly large, complete painting. Tones are key here, as is the limited palette that would cause Inness and others like him to be called Tonalists. Imagine Tiffany seeing that sunlight off the yellow sand, the brightest thing that meets his eyes. The camel riders are almost etched against the light, while the geometry of the dark pyramids seems to float above it, even as they brood and dominate the landscape. It is precisely these sorts of effects that Tiffany would chase in glass.
Pushing Off the Boat at Sea Bright, New Jersey finds Tiffany thinking, perhaps, about Winslow Homer and other artists who, after the tragedy of the Civil War, repudiated the heroic. Instead, they cast their nets for the drama in ordinary people going about their daily lives. In Pushing Off the Boat at Sea Bright, New Jersey, three men strain to get the boat out beyond the breakers, as the sailor waits to pull on the oars when the boat is out far enough in the water. In the distance, other sails tell of boats already on the sea, and the sun, already up, suggests that the figures in the foreground are a bit late this morning. Horizontal bands—another Luminist characteristic—form the set, as it were, for the action. Tiffany, as ever, is after the quality of light when the sun has not yet burned off the night mist.
Aspects of the three works cited above are combined in a rare dated painting, Fruit Vendor Under the Sea Wall at Nassau, New Providence, in which Tiffany takes us on his travels again, this time to the Bahamas. Underneath the big, blue Luminist sky and set beside a ruined, overgrown wall and staircase that blocks most of our view of the sea—imparting a plein air, on the spot quality—the scene evinces the Old World, or, at least, an Old World, a place akin to the Middle East landscapes like Bodrum, Turkey that inspired the artist. Moreover, the composition, which Tiffany painted in 1870, has a classical, academic balance that recalls the Turkish landscape. The bent tree atop the wall at upper left balances the group of men at lower right. The staircase repeats the broken wall, and the triangle of foliage at lower left balances the shape of the water at middle right. The Bahamians embody a Caribbean romanticism, as evidenced by the costume of the woman seated against the wall, looking out at the viewer. The light on the wall allows Tiffany to etch the outlines of people and their shadows without a need to define them realistically, as in Pyramids at Giza. Lastly, these are people going about their business in the drama of the everyday, as in Pushing Off the Boat at Sea Bright, New Jersey.
The overall impression of the exhibition is one that reveals Tiffany as a restless artist, one who seems to have gleaned something from every artist and artwork he experienced without feeling quite satisfied with his ability to synthesize what he admired into a style he could call his own. As a designer, however, and as an impresario of design, especially in glass, Tiffany flourished in a singular fashion. Though we now know—and credit—Tiffany designer Clara Driscoll for many of the firm’s iconic lamps, including Geranium Library Lamp, ca. 1905, Louis Comfort Tiffany’s pursuit of new techniques to produce glass in variegated colors and his adaptation of Art Nouveau principles are essential to our understanding of the enduring popularity of the lamps and their place in the history of American visual culture. Color and designs that reproduce both the order and the randomness of the natural world mark Tiffany lamps as original and inimitable, though they are often imitated. The light that shines through them represents the élan vital of life in all its variety.
A look at a late Tiffany painting puts much of his life and career in perspective, showing Tiffany the artist learning from Tiffany the designer, as if, in the end, he might have been his own best teacher.
Laurelton Hall was the 84-room home Tiffany designed on Oyster Bay, New York. Built between 1902 and 1905, the Long Island estate, on 60 landscaped acres, was (and remains, as it is now a museum) quite modern for its time, inspired not by the popular French and Italian models of the day, but rather by Tiffany’s acute interest in Middle Eastern and Asian design.
The title of Tiffany’s painting The Fountain of Laurelton Hall allows us to place this work later than the others, and in style it most closely approximates the effects he would seek and achieve in glass. The application of paint in broad, swirling strokes mimics the milky opacity found in his windows and lamps. The strong, defined yet sinuous forms of the tree—dark shapes surrounded by light in the sky and reflected in the pond—seem made to be surrounded by lead channels and fitted to a frame. The painting could easily serve as a finished sketch for a window. It is simultaneously Luminist, Impressionist, and Art Nouveau, and it exudes the romanticism of his Middle Eastern and North African sojourn; it is as if all he knew and longed to convey in his art was captured in a single image.
It’s a fascinating coincidence—or perhaps not—that Thomas Edison’s electrification of the world and the artistic interest in conveying light should have occurred all at once in the last decades of the 19th century. Even as electric light made day of night, the Pre-Raphaelites, Art Nouveau, and the Art and Crafts movements deliberately hearkened back to pre-industrial times, to the Middle Ages, to Gothic cathedrals, to nature, and to a profusion of natural light, handmade and hand-hewn. Louis Comfort Tiffany, in his painting and in the trajectory of his life and career, embodied this yearning for illumination, finding incandescence in paint applied to canvas and in the light from the sun—as well as the light bulb—as it shone through glass.