Tiffany: the man who redefined stained glass

He created not for some narrow niche of the fashion of his day, but for the spark of creativity in every person.

His works decorated the parlors and dining rooms of the rich and famous from Cornelius Vanderbilt to Mark Twain. His name is synonymous with fashionable stained glass from the turn of the 20th century to the Great Depression.

But when it comes down to the essentials, Louis Comfort Tiffany was an artist for Everyman. His art speaks to universal tastes. And he created not for some narrow niche of the fashion of his day, but for the spark of creativity in every person.

A current exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio takes you through Tiffany's long and productive career as a decorator and craftsman. It includes wonderful examples of his celebrated lamps and window panels. But if there is one surprise in this show - the first comprehensive exhibition of his works since the late 1980s - it is how much more Tiffany did than stained-glass panels and lamps.

The work on exhibit extends to glass vases and bowls, expressive pottery with abstract and geometric designs, jewelry made of gems and metalwork, and furnishings such as a gilt metal and glass fire screen.

The unmistakable high points of the exhibition (there are 120 pieces in all) are not just the famous lamps, some of whose images of nature are simply stunning. Also impressive are the gorgeous lines and unduplicable colors of his vases and other glass pieces.

Perhaps Tiffany's consummate gift was his appreciation of color. This show is a feast of color - from the pale blue of the opal in an Oriental-style pendant and the deep red of a glass vase echoing Roman pottery to the gemlike radiance of the reds and blues in his leaded glass "Window Panel With Red Apples on a Branch."

A glass plaque - a round piece for table decoration - radiates a transfixing gold light, a color I can't describe and am sure I haven't seen before. A series of vases inspired by flowers have such fluid lines they seem to have sprung spontaneously from the seeds of the plants themselves.

The Victorian mansions for which Tiffany decorated were lavish and ornate. Picture a slightly toned-down Versailles. Indeed, there is a heaviness and overbearing quality to some of Tiffany's lamps and other furnishings. Sumptuous ornamentation was in fashion.

But Tiffany's adventurous spirit enabled him to forge ahead and create works that transcended their times.

The artistic liberty he took with his roughly shaped, gold-splattered Lava Vase (circa 1918) prompted a New York Times reviewer of the era to write that it was "in the category of attempts that were best thrown away."

In his glassmaking, Tiffany could reach forward, using the vaporization of metal oxides to create an iridescence on his glasswork, imitating the ancient glass artifacts that so captivated him.

He could also look backward, as he did when borrowing a cameo technique used by the Romans, to make a small vase. After laying down amber and then green layers of glass, a craftsman cut away portions of the outer layer (acid is used today) to create the cameo design. In Tiffany's vase, delicately etched green leaves accent the amber in a lovely composition with an Egyptian feel to it.

In virtually redefining what a stained-glass window could be, Tiffany had the vision of a painter, which he was up to the time he started his decorating business. To emphasize the influence of Tiffany's training as a painter on his decorative work, several of his Impressionist-style paintings are interwoven into the show.

As every poet needs a muse, so do craftsmen and artists. Tiffany's was nature. His expressive use of the imagery of nature is one of the best reasons to see the show.

In his Aquamarine Footed Bowl (circa 1916), colored glass canes embedded in the glass produce the effect of stems of submerged waterlilies, their white and yellow blossoms afloat on its surface. So intent was Tiffany on capturing nature's subtleties that he sent his chief glass blower to the Bahamas to "spend as much time as possible looking at the underwater life from a glass-bottom boat," noted Tiffany scholar Robert Koch.

Although Tiffany was a businessman and creator of one of the most successful decorating companies of his era, he was at heart a creative spirit and an artistic innovator. A century after his heyday, much of his work still seems fresh and exciting. That is as good a legacy as any artist could ask for.

'Louis Comfort Tiffany: Artist for the Ages,' is open through April 30 at the Toledo Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio.

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