Friday, November 24, 2017
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Tiffany glass is the core of the art of Louis Comfort Tiffany

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In my youth, I only knew of two religious holidays, Christmas and Easter. And the biggest religious discussions I heard simply parsed the differences in Christian denominations that all had the same core beliefs. My world became slightly more diverse in high school, where many of my friends were Jewish, though I remained ignorant of most of the basic tenets of Judaism. A comparative religions class in college changed my view forever. I still cleaved to my Episcopal faith, but I realized that historical studies of world religions revealed much commonality and that people who practiced them believed as much in their truth as I did in mine. I decided that who might be right or wrong was not a question any mortal could answer.

This is an art story and you might well ask: Where is this memory lane musing leading?

Back to art. The 1890 stained glass window shown here, called Madonna and Child, celebrates the Christian holiday of Christmas, which many millions of people throughout the world don't observe.

But art, regardless of subject matter, can and should cross spiritual borders. Beauty has its own language with many translations.

Louis Comfort Tiffany

An American artist and businessman, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was raised in wealth, the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany who founded the famous luxury goods store. He never lost his taste for luxury or ability to acquire it.

A painter, he became interested in the arts and crafts movement in which architecture and decoration were designed in tandem for a harmonious environment. To that end, Tiffany founded ceramics, furniture, textile and fabric studios but he was most famous for works in glass. He didn't physically make his fine crafts; he employed hundreds of artists and artisans for that. But he was the inspiration and innovator who oversaw all production and was involved with all design decisions.

The penultimate example of his aesthetic was Laurelton Hall, his enormous Long Island, N.Y., estate, completed in 1905, for which he designed every detail. After his death, it was sold and many fixtures and decorations dispersed. A fire destroyed it in 1957.

Tiffany glass

Tiffany's craftsmen produced different kinds of glass but the Tiffany Glass Co. is best known for opalescent glass, in which several colors are fused within the glass to produce tonal variations and texture, and for his patented Favrile glass, which has a unique iridescence. He used both to great commercial and critical success in creating blown glass vessels and stained glass windows and lamps. The stained glass was especially innovative, made like paintings with the leading never used just to hold the glass in place. Rather, it was an integral part of the design, in most cases used as one would use paint to emphasize or outline.

He won many awards for his company's work and commissions from wealthy patrons, churches, businesses, even the White House. He loved landscapes and narratives involving the natural world but because churches were a large source of his income, he also created many windows with religious subjects.

The 'Madonna and Child' window

This stained glass work was what we would call a speculative piece, not a commission. It's a copy of a painting by the Italian Renaissance artist Sandro Botticelli titled Madonna and Child Attended by Seven Angels, and it was part of the exquisite chapel Tiffany installed for the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which showcased his studio's artistry with stained glass and glass mosaics.

Tiffany, while the committed aesthete, was also a savvy and astute businessman. He preferred original designs but knew that using an image by a beloved artist (Botticelli was rediscovered in the 19th century and became very hot with collectors) would attract interest and publicity. Also, in this window, beautiful opalescent glass is used along with two types of paint applications: powdered glass fused to the surface for facial details, called enameling; and paint applied directly on the glass surface with no heat, called cold painting, for the clothes. Using so much paint on the glass was unusual in a Tiffany window, but he wanted to demonstrate to potential clients that his studio could fulfill any stylistic request.

After the exposition, Tiffany had the chapel dismantled. Its components were purchased by a donor for installation in the Cathedral Church of Saint John the Divine in New York but they never made it out of the basement. So Tiffany bought them back and reassembled the chapel in a separate, specially designed building at Laurelton Hall. But he removed the Madonna and Child window and replaced it with one depicting the Adoration, probably because he wanted an original design rather than a copy. After Tiffany's death, the foundation he formed to preserve his work sold the window to Albertus Magnus College in New Haven, Conn. Collectors Hugh and Jeannette McKean acquired it in 1974.

The museum

The McKeans were avid collectors of late 19th and early 20th century art and fine crafts before their obsession with Tiffany. The Winter Park residents founded what would become the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in 1942, named after her industrialist grandfather from whom she inherited a fortune.

The McKeans had a significant collection of works by Tiffany and spent decades hunting specifically for objects, furniture and architectural elements from Laurelton Hall that had been sold off and even visited the burned site to salvage whatever had survived the devastating fire. Their dedication resulted in the largest collection of works by Tiffany, now at the Morse Museum.

Incidentally, if you have visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and seen the gorgeous Tiffany loggia in the Engelhard Courtyard of the American Wing, you can thank the McKeans both for rescuing it and donating it to the Met so it could be enjoyed by millions of visitors.

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