The innovations and artistry of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848 – 1933) were explored in the winter of 2010 in two new Museum exhibitions.
Tiffany Treasures: %%Favrile%% Glass from Special Collections (November 1, 2009 – October 31, 2010), was shown on the Museum’s West Bridge. It featured nearly 60 of Tiffany’s blown-glass works from outside collections.
The Rakow Research Library mounted a complementary show, from its collection, of eight recently restored watercolor sketches from Tiffany Studios. Tiffany Treasures: Design Drawings by Alice Gouvy and Lillian Palmié was on display November 1, 2009 through April 30, 2010 (shown on the West Bridge through March 21, and then it moved to the Rakow Library for the month of April).
Tiffany began his glass career as a designer of stained glass windows, which were becoming more popular for domestic and ecclesiastical use. In 1885, he created his own company to assemble the windows, using glass that was purchased from various manufacturers. Eight years later, he started his own glasshouse in Corona, Queens, NY.
Tiffany hired Arthur Nash, an experienced English glassblower, to run the Corona factory. Originally called the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, it became Tiffany Furnaces in 1902. In addition to fabricating the glass for Tiffany’s stained glass windows, this company produced blown-glass vessels.
Nash developed the formula for Favrile glass, which he never shared with anyone, including Tiffany. Nash and his sons operated Tiffany’s glasshouse and its successor firms until production ended around 1930. The Rakow Research Library holds unique archival material from Nash, consisting mostly of personal notebooks filled with glass recipes and coded keys to a variety of formulas. In addition, the archive contains letters and handwritten notes, acquired in 2004, which provide insight into the complex behind-the-scenes relationship of the Nashes with Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Tiffany named his vessel glass Favrile, derived from the Old English word fabrile, meaning “handwrought.” The objects were asymmetrical, based on the principles of Art Nouveau, and somewhat influenced by the work of the French glass designer Emile Gallé. Many of Tiffany’s early pieces were iridescent. They were made to resemble ancient glasses, which, when they were excavated from archeological sites, had iridescent surfaces, a result of the moisture from centuries of burial.
Both the shapes and the colors of Tiffany’s vessels were unusual at that time, when elaborately cut glassware in symmetrical forms was favored by the wealthy. Tiffany’s glass displayed the skills of blowers and color mixers, although some of these objects also were cut or engraved.
All but one of the pieces in this exhibition are from two museum collections in upstate New York: the Reifschlager Collection, which was a gift to the Rockwell Museum of Western Art in Corning in 1982, and the collection of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University in Ithaca. The Cornell collection was assembled primarily from gifts from A. Douglas Nash (Arthur Nash’s son) and Edythe de Lorenzi.
The restoration of eight watercolor sketches from the enamel department of Tiffany Furnaces provides the impetus for the Rakow Research Library exhibit. Executed by Alice Gouvy and Lillian Palmié around 1902, seven of the drawings bear their signatures, now made more clearly discernible thanks to recent conservation work. The eighth drawing, which is unsigned, was most likely by either Gouvy or Palmié. The drawings served as a reference for the design and production of Tiffany’s luxury household objects.
Tiffany’s work was inspired by forms found in the natural world, and the Gouvy and Palmié drawings depict flowers and plants in their natural state. The details, an insect alighting on a petal, for example, reflect a spontaneous hand that suggests a sketching party held in a garden on a summer’s day. The vivid colors of the original drawings, also revived by conservation, are mostly blue, green, and purple hues gently punctuated with dashes of yellow. The one exception is Peonies, where red predominates.
Tiffany employees worked in anonymity and for the most part remained unacknowledged. Female staff, who held their own with their male counterparts, tended to have even less visibility, both in Tiffany’s enterprises and in the world of decorative arts overall. In recent decades, however, they have received long overdue attention. The 1993 publication by Janet Zapata, The Jewelry and Enamels of Louis Comfort Tiffany, refers to the work of both Gouvy and Palmié in Tiffany’s enamel design and production. And in 2007, the New York Historical Society mounted a comprehensive exhibition with an accompanying book titled A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls.