Fabulous glass -- and other dazzling Tiffany forms

Push a seven-by-eight-foot wikndow off a five-story parking garage? That is the test Hugh McKean devised before he agreed to ship hundreds of items to San Francisco's de Young Museum for its current exhibition "The Art of Louis Comfort Tiffany."

Because McKean owns the most important collection of Tiffany#55'5s wokrk, which he houses in Winter Park, Fla., the logistical problems in arranging this show were tremendous. To be certain his treasures would survive their lenthy journey, McKean devised the Parking Garage Test -- but Tiffany-philes can breathe easy: The packers experimented with ordinary window glass. When it came through unscathed, the exhibition was on its way to San Francisco.

When the show opened in May, it drew the largest crowd since "The Treasures of Tutankhamun." It continues to draw visitors from all over the United States and abroad. Because of its popularity it has been extended through Oct. 4.

The popularity is well deserved. This is the most comprehensive collection of Tiffany's art ever presented. The show reflects the artist's belief in the morally uplifting quality of beauty. It tries to show Tiffany's search to bring order and beauty to our lives through a variety of media, ranging from painting and photography to glass, pottery, and jewelry. In a way, the exhibition is a celebration of life.

By the time he was 30 in 1878, Tiffany was one of America's most famous artists. He combined the tender lyricism of French Barbizon painting with the more indegenous vision of the Hudson River painters. But unlike earlier Hudson River painters, much of Tiffany's best work stressed the intimate rather than vast landscapes. The Wyethesque "Sow With Piglets" (ca. 1900) is a delightful watercolor of nursing piglets scrambling for lunch in a pumpkin patch. Typical of Tiffany are the soft blend of autumnal colors and the natural of Tiffany are the soft blend of autumnal colors and the natural subject matter. At his best, he did not idealize nature, but he did love it, finding inspiration in its beauty.

Because he was always searching for new means of expression, his experiments with photography began in the 1870s. In the photograph "Sea Bird in flight" (ca. 1884), Tiffany is pioneering with motion photography.

The highlight of this exhibition is the fabulous glass. Impressed with the medieval stained glass he saw on his 1870 European trip, the artist returned to this country determined to revive the art form. Since available glass lacked the range of color and texture he desired, he created his own remarkable glass, calling it "Favrite" glass, from an anglo-Saxon word meaning handmade.

In windows like "Young Woman at a Fountain" (1894), Tiffany's beginning as a painter is characteristically in evidence. He is working with molten glass, folding and pulling it like taffy to create the wonderfully rich, draped fabric of the woman's robe.

There is a delightful variety of lamp designs. The advent of electricity freed Tiffany from the need for bulky fuel receptacles. Instead, just as he worked the leading of his windows into their total design, his lamp standards are bronze-sculptured plant stems, tendril-wrapped columns, and textures tree trunks.

His lifelong fascination with collecting antique glass was indulged by his father's great Tiffany & Co. jewelry store fortune. Tiffany sought to re-create the subtle iridescence he loved in the antique glass. His studios produced breath-taking objets d'artm with soft rainbows of color, ever changing with varying light. Paradoxically this fragile glass sings with energy. The floriform vases seem to grow from their bulging bases and unruffle their delicate beauty before our eyes -- a paean in glass.

When he inherited his share of his father's fortune in 1902, Tiffany devoted his creative energy to Laurelton Hall, his Long Island estate, embodying his desire to create an environment of total beauty. He oversaw every aspect of his residence, from architecture through candlesticks. although the estate's cost was not revealed, Hugh McKean notes that in 1904 property taxes were $157,000. After it was destroyed by a fire in 1957, Hugh McKean and his wife, Jeannette, salvaged some of its treasures. These serve as a fitting coda to the exhibition.

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