This post comes to us from Alyssa Speranza, Curatorial Intern.
Louis Comfort Tiffany was a true chameleon when it came to his use of different artistic media in his ongoing quest for beautyl. The Brilliance of Louis Comfort Tiffany: Painter and Craftsman, which just opened on Friday, displays paintings and watercolors by Tiffany as well as stained-glass windows, jewelry, lamps and vases he designed. I’ll admit that at first I thought any firm relationship between his paintings and decorative art objects was unlikely, but as I learned more about Tiffany’s life and interests, it became much easier to see the connection.
Tiffany traveled extensively throughout his life. He made multiple trips to North Africa where he admired the bold colors of the decorative textiles, jewelry and clothing worn by the people he saw there. Upon his return to America he said, “I returned to New York wondering why we made so little use of our eyes, why we refrained so obstinately from taking advantage of color…” He believed that color was the most important aspect of a work of art, and that to favor form over color was to go against nature. Tiffany attempted to capture the intensity of the colors of the Near East in his paintings by developing a painting style, later termed his “Orientalist” style, which embodied the liveliness and beautiful patterns he saw in his trips to Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia. Tiffany’s Orientalist style uses jewel-like spots of bright color strategically placed within the painting. He equated these “color spots” with musical notes which are essential to an entire composition. “Let us take colors as the component parts in decoration. We must have a combination of the physical and mental in a fine decoration- the objective and the subjective must be married and intimately blended by the subtle employment of color, as the composer employs the moods of music.”
Tiffany’s desire for more luminous color led him to watercolor. Since watercolor is a transparent medium, it is easy to see how Tiffany could have made the transition from painting to glass. In fact, he often used watercolor to sketch ideas for his works in glass and jewelry. Tiffany’s most productive period of painting was in the early half of his career, though he continued to paint during his entire life. His work and experimentation with decorative objects and jewelry increased beginning in the late 1870s.
Tiffany had a lifelong passion, some would say an obsession, with color. As a young man, Tiffany was always delighted by the various hues of stained-glass which decorated medieval church windows in Europe. Tiffany also admired the iridescent quality of the flaking, aging surfaces of ancient glass; he began experimenting in glass to achieve vibrant and iridescent hues in the studio. These experiments led to a successful innovation he called “Favrile” glass, which allowed Tiffany to apply and concentrate the love of color so evident in his paintings to glass.
Though Tiffany found less time to paint once he had begun working with glass and jewelry, his love for the colors and design of non-Western decoration had not diminished; he sought to capture them in every medium he used. As in his glass, Tiffany tended to use more colorful and iridescent gems versus diamonds, which he found to be lacking in color. Opals and moonstones were among his favorite stones. Tiffany’s jewelry design was influenced by Egyptian, Islamic, Indian, and Japanese art. During his travels, Tiffany collected “objets d’art” along the way. Much of this collection was made up of jewelry and other decorative objects from the East, from which he drew inspiration.
“I have always striven to fix beauty in wood or stone or glass or pottery, in oil or watercolour, by using whatever seemed fittest for the expression of beauty.” This quote from Tiffany summarizes the underlying intention behind using such a variety of mediums. Whether it is in oil paint, watercolor or glass, the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany truly sings.
Do you know of any other artists who work in a such a wide variety of mediums? In which of Tiffany’s decorative works can you see characteristics of his paintings? Do you agree with Tiffany’s belief that color is the most important element of a work of art?