The Superb Craft of Tiffany

WHEN I discovered this handsome painting, ``Market Day Outside the Walls of Tangier,'' I was immediately interested in the artist. The name Tiffany evokes at first thought diamonds and luxurious silverware - it was Charles Lewis Tiffany who founded one of the most famous jewelry stores in the world. At second thought it suggests brightly colored leaded stained-glass lamps - it was Charles Lewis' son, Louis Comfort Tittany who was the author of those. And it was he who painted this colorfully accurate painting responding to the 19th-century interest in exotic locales. Tangier rises aloof and elegant from behind its walls and oasis-greenery to overlook a blue sea and distant shores. The action is in the market outside where buyers and sellers, their camels, donkeys, and merchandise make a vibrant scene with bits of red scattered like jewels throughout contrasting with the desert brown foreground.

The man whom we know today by his lamps was on his way to being a well-recognized painter before he was 30.

At 19, one of his paintings was not only accepted for a show at the National Academy of Design in New York City but was hung in a favored position. At 22 he was the youngest artist to be elected to New York's prestigious Century Club of New York's artistic elite; at 23 he was made an Associate National Academician and soon gained full status.

Young Tiffany studied with the famous landscape painter, George Inness, working in watercolor, egg tempera, and oils. As the son of a wealthy father, he studied in Europe and made trips to North Africa and wherever his fancy led him. He brought home studies and sketches for paintings as was the general practice.

However, at age 25 he began experiments in glassmaking at commercial glasshouses in New York. Glasswork, not painting, was to become the consuming passion of his life. Why? One biographer speculates that he was fascinated as a child by the flashing gems in his father's store and notes his admiration for the stained-glass windows of Chartres Cathedral in France.

Another expert thinks that Tiffany decided that he would not make the top rank as an artist and cast about for a wide-open art field which offered the challenges of experimentation and discovery. Tiffany was also interested in the Englishman William Morris' ideas on the dissemination of art and beautiful objects to the many - not just the wealthy few.

Whatever the reason, it was in the same year that this painting was dated that he began, very quietly, to learn glassmaking. Tiffany later wrote, ``I took up chemistry, built furnaces - two of them were destroyed by fire - and for some time my experiments met with no success.... Year by year, the experiments that baffled hope gave way to better results.''

He did continue to paint throughout his life and some paintings found their way into museums, but much of his best work is still in private collections.

But glass is no medium for the dabbler and Tiffany engaged it with characteristic energy, enthusiasm, and innovation. That he was able to innovate in such a demanding medium is a tribute to his ability to understand and appreciate its properties.

Unlike paint, in which the pigments that the artist mixes on his palette will be the color on the canvas, glass has no pigments as such in it. The color of glass results from the exact mineral components and the heat applied. Different metals in different chemical combinations block out parts of the light spectrum and result in what we see as colored glass.

It was not lamps but windows which fueled Tiffany's desire to work with glass. In three short years he had mastered enough of the language of glass to design his first ornamental windows. As the making of such a window involves a great many steps, it is unlikely that he did more than direct the work. The raw ingredients for the glass have to be mixed, heated until they fuse into melted glass. The molten glass (called pot metal at that stage) is worked into sheets by one of several meth- ods, the sheets annealed and cooled before the designer can even think of making the cuts and leading the pieces.

Tiffany's innovations occurred in just about all of the stages of glassmaking. He experimented with the mineral powders; with texturing and manipulating the sheets of hot glass; with the leading and bracing of his highly irregular glass.

As he had established his own glasshouse, he soon had tons of sheets of glass in 5,000 hues and variations from which the intricate windows were constructed. He eventually gave the name ``Favrile'' to all his glass. He explained that the word derived from ``fabricate'' and indicated that the object was handmade.

TIFFANY also prided himself on fidelity to nature and spared no pains to keep his images faithful. The lighthearted and whimsical ``Parakeet and Goldfish Bowl'' window features a fishbowl dangling from the limb of a flowering tree surrounded by the birds, each in a different pose.

Custom windows such as this were made for wealthy clients. But since the market for custom windows was necessarily limited, his glassworks also produced handsome blown-glass vases and lampshades, some with the fragile delicacy of a rare flower, some with strong, simple forms with beautiful colors and handsome textures.

He established an interior decorating firm which designed textiles and wallpapers. President Chester Arthur commissioned him to redecorate some of the reception rooms of the White House which then sparkled with iridescent Tiffany glass sconces, stained-glass windows and glass tile mosaics. In 1893 his glass became internationally famous through a chapel he constructed at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Later, he produced some of the most beautiful pottery vases like the ``Calla Lily'' as well as common objects such as buttons and inkwells, again using nature motifs which Art Nouveau would popularize. After his father died, he was appointed art director of the jewelry emporium which had bejeweled not only wealthy American ladies but the crowned heads of Europe.

Tiffany had a lifelong dream to spread the enjoyment and appreciation of exquisitely crafted work to more homes than those of the very rich. He chose to enamel his jewelry and set it with semiprecious stones or the less valuable but no less beautiful colors of gemstones. His department in the famous jewelry store lasted only about 10 years.

The leaded stained-glass lamps which would keep his name more or less a household word after the world had forgotten that he had been a painter, an innovator in glass, and an astonishing designer of ornamental windows were something of an afterthought. He loved the play of glass in light and had designed windows that looked beautiful in all the variations of light from dawn to dusk to artificial illumination.

The production of Tiffany lamps was embarked upon as much to utilize some of the vast stores of leftover glass from more monumental projects. A lampshade may contain as many as a thousand pieces of glass. He even designed the metal bases and finials. Except for pieces designed by artists like Frederick Church, Pierre Bonnard, and Henri Toulouse-Lautrec and executed by Tiffany's company, he kept a tight control over the design and execution of his products. But, in the case of the lamps, the women workers who leaded the bits of glass into charming lamps were given the freedom to select the color scheme for each piece they worked.

So, one ``Dragonfly'' lamp may have ruby red eyes and iridescent wings, another may have green eyes and blue wings. Or, the texture of the glass in the leaves and the exact tint of the flowers in the ``Lotus'' table lamp may vary from piece to piece. This contributes to the individual charm of Tiffany lamps.

LATE in life he established the Tiffany Foundation which was a sort of fellowship for young artists. His hope was that as they worked in the Tiffany-designed splendor of his home, Laurelton Hall, for a few months they would imbibe something of what he felt about beautiful decorative products, integrity of superb craftsmanship and come to share his lifelong quest for beauty.

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