Louis Comfort Tiffany was a Renaissance man during a period of history known as the Gilded Age. As an artist of many media and decorative arts, his lengthy career, from the 1870's to the mid-1920's, spanned and shaped several design periods during a time of "experimentation, intense scrutiny of aesthetic ideals, and proliferation of new styles in the world of art." Throughout his career, he forged a unique style that combined superb craftsmanship with a love of natural forms and brilliant color. His luminous glass designs combined technical innovations with the highest artistry infusing everyday objects with beauty inspired by nature.
Born in New York City, Louis Comfort Tiffany was the eldest son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, who had founded Tiffany & Co in 1837. Raised in an atmosphere of tremendous wealth and expensive taste, Tiffany was a natural aesthete, and opted against joining his father's company in favor of studying the fine arts.
As a young man, Tiffany traveled extensively and painted his experiences of exotic lands such as Egypt and other North African locations. Tiffany continued to paint, but it was in the decorative arena that he made his mark. There was hardly a medium to which he did not turn, including furniture, metalwork, textiles, pottery, enamels, jewelry, and book design. He became interested in the decorative possibilities of glass in the late 1870s and employed it throughout his career.
Tiffany participated in the Aesthetic Movement, which conferred a new, higher status to the decorative arts. Like other members of the movement, he drew upon historical sources and was attracted to the arts of such exotic places as China, Japan, ancient Greece, Egypt, Venice, India, and the Islamic world. Tiffany likewise responded to the tenets of contemporary British reform movements, emulating the practices of British designer William Morris, and appreciated the fine craftsmanship championed by the Arts and Crafts Movement.
Tiffany's many travels to Europe and the Near East were influential in his choices as a glassmaker. He was especially inspired by Gothic stained glass windows, Persian glass, English cameo, the idea of imitating in glass natural stones such as agate, and the iridescence found in excavated ancient Syrian and Roman glass. Tiffany was critical of the contemporary practice of painting on glass, which he felt obscured the innate qualities of glass. He sought to maximize the potential of the medium itself, developing new methods resulting in iridescent finishes, lava glass, and his most important innovation, Favrile glass.
Favrile glass — a term Tiffany invented from the Latin fabrilis, meaning handmade — is produced by exposing molten glass to a series of vapors and metallic oxides that infuse it with radiant colors and iridescence. The name, as it applied to his own product, was trademarked in 1894. By this point, Tiffany had opened a new glass factory in Corona, Queens, and had begun marketing his Favrile windows, lamps, vases and mosaics in America and in Europe.
In 1878, Tiffany designed his first interior —for his own home in the Bella Apartments at 48 East Twenty-sixth Street, where he lived with his wife and three children. Hardly a surface was left plain: Oriental rugs were scattered across floors; Japanese patterned papers were affixed to walls and ceilings; carved and painted woodwork from India served as architectural embellishment for windows; colored and leaded glass filled window openings; and pictures and objects of various styles and media, including pottery, porcelain, and metalwork from China and Japan, were arranged throughout. Much of the furniture was remarkably simple, a foil for the proliferation of ornament.
Louis C. Tiffany and Associated Artists was founded in 1879, the first of several decorating partnerships. Tiffany joined forces with the American painter Samuel Colman, who suggested colors and patterns for walls and ceilings. Lockwood de Forest, an artist and collector of Indian artifacts, provided carved woodwork and furniture. Candace Wheeler created textiles and embroidery to Tiffany's designs. Tiffany, who specialized in glass, remained in charge of the overall design process. The firm enjoyed great success, counting among its clients such prominent figures as President Chester Arthur, pharmaceuticals millionaire George Kemp, elder statesman Hamilton Fish, president of the Metropolitan Museum John Taylor Johnston, author Mark Twain, and the Veterans of New York's Seventh Regiment Armory.
After 1883 Tiffany worked primarily on his own. In 1885 he completed work on his second home, in a massive McKim, Mead, and White-designed Romanesque revival building at Seventy-Second Street and Madison Avenue commissioned by his father. Tiffany's top floor studio was perhaps the most startling room. With its theatrical and cave-like appearance, unique four-sided central fireplace, and forest of glass lanterns of various shapes and colors suspended from the ceiling, it was described as "a dream: Arabian Nights in New York."
Tiffany continued to work on residential, public, and ecclesiastical interiors to a far greater extent than many have assumed. One of the most remarkable commissions was for the home of two of his most important patrons, Louisine and Henry Osborne Havemeyer. Their house at 1 East Sixty-Sixth Street, completed in 1892, was replete with glowing iridescent glass-mosaic walls, lighting fixtures of Near Eastern derivation, elaborate filigreed balustrades and fireplace screens, and a dramatic suspended staircase. Tiffany was responsible for every decorative element, enhancing the unified effect. His artisans and designers mastered the techniques needed to produce and decorate objects in metal, wood, glass, fabric, and wallpaper and became manufacturers of rugs, glass mosaics, lighting fixtures, and ornamental cast bronzes.
Tiffany's creativity peaked as Art Nouveau burst on the scene in Europe in the mid-1890s. The primary proponent of Art Nouveau in America, Tiffany's work exemplified the movement's aims to develop a new aesthetic based in nature. While the French and Belgian Art Nouveau artists abstracted nature into sinuous curves, and the Viennese and Scottish experimented with geometric abstraction, Tiffany sought to depict the colors and forms of nature in a more straightforward, impressionistic manner. His lily lamps follow nature's logic, with petals and leaves on the shade and stems, and stalks on the base, while his "Agate" and "Lava" glass vases closely approximate the appearance of other natural materials. Far from resulting in a simplified version of Art Nouveau themes, however, Tiffany's glass is invariably complex in composition and appearance. What began as formal interpretations of nature grew into a love of lush naturalism, and as his artistic career progressed, he became increasingly preoccupied by illusionistic depictions of landscapes and flowers. His was not an intellectual approach to art; rather it was a sensory one, providing feasts of color, light, and texture.
Post-Civil War prosperity produced patrons who were not merely rich but also cultured and who shared an aptitude for experimentation. They were poised for Tiffany, who coupled his artistic ambitions with a unique marketing ability that enabled him to publicize his wares to an extent formerly unknown in America. Tiffany utilized the great international fairs of the late nineteenth century as promotional vehicles for his artistic work. He first exhibited his oil paintings at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and later at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, however, that was a watershed event in Tiffany's career. Over a million people visited his exhibit, which was the subject of numerous accounts in the press and the catalyst for many new commissions. During that period the Parisian dealer Siegfried Bing saw Tiffany's work, and his assessment of it led to his sponsorship of Tiffany in Paris and throughout Europe. Tiffany continued to make strong showings and receive awards at international fairs, notably Paris in 1900, Buffalo in 1901, Turin in 1902, and St. Louis in 1904. As a result, his work was widely known and acclaimed throughout America and around the world.
Early institutional collectors of Tiffany glass included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, Tokyo's Imperial Museum, and many other museums around the world. His stained glass windows can still be found in many of America's oldest colleges and universities, among them Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Vassar and Wellesley, as well as the Smithsonian and the Chicago Art Institute.
While Tiffany Studios primarily manufactured glass for lamps, vases and windows, it also produced objects in copper and bronze collectively called "Fancy Goods" in his catalogues. Also inspired by nature, his metalwork designs were used for candelabras, desk sets, picture frames, and other objects, and often incorporated glass elements. When Tiffany took over as vice president and artistic director of Tiffany & Co. after his father's death in 1902, Tiffany Studios also began producing jewelry, primarily using semiprecious stones and enamels, and retaining the Studios' primary motifs of plants and insects.
An autocratic perfectionist, Tiffany was known to walk down the production lines with his cane and strike any piece that he found unacceptable. And yet, he always had an eye on the bottom line and would cease production of any item that went unsold for one year.
Shortly after the First World War, tastes shifted dramatically away from Art Nouveau and toward the sparer Bauhaus aesthetic. With the concomitant loss of revenue, as well as the decline in fortune due to Tiffany's lifestyle and his Foundation, Tiffany Studios declared bankruptcy in 1932. Louis Comfort Tiffany died on January 17, 1933 in New York, in relative obscurity. It was not until the late 1950's that scholars and collectors began rediscovering Tiffany's work, and jumpstarted the process of resurrecting his reputation as an artist, innovator, and pioneer of modernism as he is now known today.