Louis Comfort Tiffany began his artistic career as a painter, but the influences of the Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau movements at the end of the 19th and early 20th century propelled him to become a pioneer — and master — of modern glass art. Once the auspices of religious or devotional art, stained glass under Tiffany honored the newer, secular religion of aestheticism.
Tiffany’s father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, made the family name famous for elegant jewelry and silverware, founding Tiffany & Co in 1837. Louis worked for the business off and on during his career, but he made his mark with stunning stained glass and other decorative arts. He patented Favrile glass, an iridescent glass where the colors have been mixed while they are still molten liquid. His work adorned churches, private homes and public spaces around the world, including the White House.
“Tiffany, in terms of timing, was quite fortunate,” says Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. “He brought glass to the forefront during the rise of the Art Nouveau period where furniture and ceramics and glass objects all took on wonderfully organic forms.”
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is exhibiting more than 180 examples of the artist’s work in an exhibit called ‘Tiffany: Color and Light’. From vases to mosaics, the collection shows Tiffany’s ability to use layering and a wide breadth of colors to create a sense of movement in the glass. His intricate lamps remain iconic examples of American decorative art, and his work influenced generations of artists to come.
“Favrile glass appeared as an uncanny precedent to Abstract Expressionism; and when America’s first great international contribution to contemporary painting was hardening into a movement in the early fifties, Tiffany glass — which itself depended so much on the principles of controlled accident, color, shape, and free form design — found new admirers,” wrote the late art critic Mario Amaya in his 1968 book “Tiffany Glass.”
“He developed a very unique style and created an entire workshop. At one time he had 300 people working for him in his studio,” says Nyerges.
“It harkens back to the old master style of studio production. In producing the art, Tiffany was the genius behind the style and color and so many other parts of what we think of Tiffany glass today.”
“Tiffany: Color and Light” is on exhibit at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond until August 15.
Listen to Alex Nyerges, director of the museum, describes Tiffany’s importance.