Louis Comfort Tiffany’s
Unrelenting Quest for Beauty
By Rachel Kessler
The mere mention of the name ‘Tiffany’ evokes instant recognition for bespoke quality and style — especially when it comes to fine jewelry and stained-glass artistry. Yet many art historians still ponder — what motivated Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of the famous jeweler Charles Tiffany, not to follow in his father’s footsteps and choose, instead, to establish his own legacy as one of the most prolific painters, sculptors and stained-glass
artisans of the late 19th century?
The answers to these questions are practically in our own backyard — in Winter Park — at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, which houses the largest collection of Louis Comfort Tiffany art in the world. South Florida Opulence sat down with Jennifer Perry Thalheimer, the Museum’s Curator and Collection Manager, to find out what made this very talented man tick. Louis didn’t leave a journal and his correspondence was limited. Yet, what has been uncovered about his life and art has revealed a deep and fascinating character whose legacy was a “quest for beauty.”
Curator Jennifer Perry Thalheimer: Interestingly, when I was in graduate school, I was advised not to pursue Louis Comfort Tiffany because he had already been “done.” But after being at the Morse Museum for nearly 15 years now, I can say for sure that he is still not fully understood. Hugh McKean, our first director and a former fellow at Tiffany’s Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation, set a standard for approaching Tiffany as a man first, and then defining his artwork and the production of Tiffany Studios.
SFO: How would you compare and contrast Louis and his father Charles?
Thalheimer: Louis had an independent streak that perhaps was not so different from his father’s. Despite the fact that Louis Comfort Tiffany’s grandfather — Comfort Tiffany — had been a successful textile manufacturer in Connecticut, Louis’ father Charles chose not to follow in the family
business and decided instead to move to New York City to follow his own dream — one that led to the enormously successful Tiffany & Co. Louis Tiffany similarly chose to follow HIS dreams rather than be known as “young Tiffany” at Tiffany & Co.
SFO: What motivated Louis?
Thalheimer: Given that his father was one of America’s “men of achievement,” it’s easy to see that Louis grew up with rare comforts and was exposed to beautiful objects early on. Louis had a natural curiosity about materials that probably originated in his upbringing at Tiffany & Co. His uncle, George McClure, was the head gemologist at Tiffany & Co. from 1852 through 1879 and exposed Louis to the wonders of the natural world. Beauty motivated Louis.
He called himself a “humble believer in color.” His idea of beauty centered on color and light, which was apparent in sketches he made during his first trip to Europe in 1865. We are lucky to have his sketchbook in the Museum. Louis lived at a time when beauty was necessary to the healing of a nation after the Civil War. In a letter, Charles Tiffany described the chaos throughout New York City during the draft riots of 1863 as he sat watch in his shop on Union Square. Charles stayed intimately involved as a business leader. This was also Louis’ model. Growing up and attending military school during probably the most dark and trying time in American history — centered on Union blue and Confederate grey — no doubt encouraged Louis’ love of color and light.
SFO: How did Louis ultimately move from canvas to glass?
Thalheimer: Louis used all the materials placed in his hands. He was a painter, a decorator, an architect, a photographer and a designer of ceramics, furniture, enamels, and jewelry in addition to glass lamps, windows, mosaics, and vases. His career as a painter quickly became successful and he was named to the National Academy of Design. Louis traveled throughout Europe and North Africa, honing a great sensitivity to color and light. These predilections made an easy transition from canvas to glass—a material that intrinsically captured both color and light.
Tiffany experimented with glass at independent glasshouses since the mid-1870s when he was in his 20s, and with his new undertaking, “took up chemistry.” Tiffany sought the help of preeminent glassworkers and chemists and opened a glasshouse to satisfy his desire to produce flat glass with “richer, finer” color. He refined techniques in the material. His complex system of plating, or layering the glass, allowed for a lifelike, almost holographic depth perception. He also integrated natural properties inside glass to communicate textural effects like hair.
SFO: It’s been said that Louis was ahead of his time. In what ways?
Thalheimer: Louis was progressive for his time. His initial endeavors included a named partnership with a woman, Candace Wheeler (Tiffany & Wheeler) in 1879 — an obvious recognition of her ability at a time when women were still denied the right to vote in America. Wheeler recalled of her time at Tiffany’s Fourth Avenue studios in New York City that, “at the top were the glass rooms where Mr.
Tiffany’s experiments in color went on and where he was working out his problems from bits of old iridescent Roman vases which had lain centuries underground; or finding out the secrets of tints in ancient cathedral windows, and the proportions of metals and chemicals which would produce certain shades of color. The actual melting and mixing was done in the laboratory underneath his own apartments, but the results of the study and effects of juxtaposition were tried in the ‘glass loft.’ ” This is significant because many argue that Tiffany had no experience working with materials. Sources like this one actually contradict this notion and record him as an active participant in experimentation — which we find was true throughout his life.
The Morse Museum is located at 445 North Park Avenue in Winter Park. For more information, go to www.morsemuseum.org.