Out of all of Louis C. Tiffany’s artistic endeavors, his stained glass windows brought his the most acclaim during his lifetime. The craft of stained glass window making had remained largely unchanged since the medieval era, with glass makers in America producing works of inferior quality compared to their European counterparts. In the late 1870’s Tiffany and his rival John La Farge developed techniques that revolutionized the art of stained glass. Firstly, the quality of glass for making windows was greatly improved upon. The invention of “opalescent” glass, a variety of glass that is semi-translucent, was an essentially American product, one that distinguishes American windows from those made elsewhere to this day. The American School of Stained Glass, a movement which rose from the advances being made in stained glass technology, held that the motif in a window should be contained within the glass as much as possible and that the only painted details should be faces and hands.
Tiffany later said of his formative glass making years, “My chemist and furnace men insisted for a long time that it was impossible to achieve the results we were striving for…New style firing ovens had to be built and new methods devised for annealing glass… it took me thirty years to learn the art.”
The new techniques coincided perfectly with a new demand for opulent window decoration. During the 1870’s churches of all denominations were rapidly being built up across the nation, each wishing to be embellished with memorial windows. In the secular world construction was also booming. New libraries, colleges, and state capitals requested Tiffany windows. Great personal fortunes were also being built, and robber barons such as Andrew Carnegie and Richard Beattie Mellon commissioning Tiffany windows. Tiffany’s international status gained him respectability, and the new money of the era flocked to him for expressions of their wealth. By the 1890’s Tiffany Glass & Decorating Company had a monopoly on stained glass window production. Though no record of the exact number employed in the window department is known, between the designers, technicians, and installers, the number was certainly considerable. Tiffany employed a large number of young women in his lamp and window departments, whose color sensitivity and manual dexterity he routinely praised as superior to their male counterparts.
Window production at Tiffany Studios peaked between1900-1910. There are thousands of Tiffany windows across the United States, and examples can be found in Great Britain, France, Cuba, and Australia as well. Window designs differed depending on intended purpose. The bulk of the Studio’s work came from ecclesiastical commissions for figural windows. The Ecclesiastical department, separate from the Window department, not only produced the majority of commissioned windows, but manufactured a complete line of liturgical furnishings to accompany the windows, from crypts to alters. In the 1893 Tiffany exhibited a full chapel at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Though the chapel was created to promote the artistry and craftsmanship of the goods produced by Tiffany’s new firm, visitors were so moved by its splendor that men doffed their hats in respect. Along with 16 mosaic columns, carved arches, and an electrified chandelier, several stained glass windows were featured. These windows broke from traditional figural ecclesiastical motifs, and featured a new subject matter unique to Tiffany’s vision, verdant landscapes that conferred religious significance and grandeur through nature itself.
More than any other aspect of Tiffany’s stained glass works, landscape windows showcased his mastery of color, technique, and depiction in the medium of glass. Tiffany’s deep love of nature and gardens was clearly represented through this venue, he stressed the religious symbolism of his landscapes when used in memorial windows. Secular landscape windows were also popular, Tiffany sometimes interspersed these themes with strutting Peacocks, Greek temples, or boats on a harbor.
Though the total number of windows produced by Tiffany Studios is unknown, it is speculated that over 5,000 windows, perhaps a considerable amount more, were produced. A team was assembled after Tiffany’s death to complete outstanding orders as late as 1940. Many of his windows were removed from churches and private residences, some destroyed and some salvaged and in the collections of Museums and in private collectors.
The “Lily” Window:
An example of a secular landscape window, this piece depicts a spray of blue, purple and green flowers climbing up a cream colored pillar on the left side of the window and extending across the top of the window. The bottom right is decorated with beautiful lilies with a wonderful green mottled tree in the background. The trees and flowers frame a scenic view of a lake with waterfall and mountains in the background against a fantastic orange and blue sky. The window, created in 1915, is plated with up to three layers of glass, and is signed in back with black enamel “Tiffany Studios New York”.