The Unexpected Art Of Louis Comfort Tiffany

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“The most helpful thing I can think of,” Louis Tiffany once wrote, “is to show people that beauty is everywhere…up-lifting…healthgiving.” He showed that beauty most memorably in the opulent, iridescent, glass that made a Tiffany vase or lamp the hallmark of a well-appointed turn-of-the-century home.

But, as a recent show at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University demonstrated, Tiffany also was a deft artist in oil and watercolor and pastel. He was born in 1848, the eldest son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the most celebrated jewelry establishment in America. He proved a romantic, rebellious child, and at eighteen announced that he would not go to college or train to head the family firm: he had resolved to become an artist. He first studied art with George Inness, who found him a distressingly independent pupil. “The more I teach him,” Inness complained, “the less he knows, and the older he grows, the further he is from what he ought to be.” But Tiffany persevered, studying in Paris (where he may first have come to admire the light-filled works of the early impressionists) and sketching throughout North Africa.

It was there, he later recalled, “where the people and the buildings are…clad in beautiful hues [that] the pre-eminence of color in the world was brought forcibly to my attention.” It was a lesson he never forgot. Whether he was oaintine the exotic Old World watercolors that first brought him attention, or was swiftly rendering the intimate family and genre scenes that appear on these pages, color formed the heart of his work.

He was absolutely clear about its paramount importance to him—and about his own importance as a “colorist” in the world of art. “Colorists are men apart,” he wrote. “But always they are antagonized and decried by artists and critics who lack the gift, and see nature in outline rather than in color.…Slowly, however, the public comes to see that for such art-products as painting the most important ingredient is color, and in time the colorist is exalted.”

Exaltation finally came to him as a designer of exquisite glass, not as a painter. He turned to what he called “decorative work” in 1875, and by 1898 his studios were turning out some five thousand colors and varieties of glass.

Yet he never abandoned painting entirely and, late in life, he established a foundation at Laurelton, his country home on Long Island, where artists could work unimpeded by “the trammels of schools or conventions.” He died in 1933.

“I have always striven to fix beauty in wood or stone or glass or pottery, in oil or water color,” he once wrote, “by using whatever seemed fittest for the expression of beauty; that has been my creed, and I see no reason to change it.”