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What’s in a name? If the name is Tiffany, it’s wealth, class and stature, paintings and stained glass, jewelry and furniture—and, ultimately, the story of a man who at one time thought we might forget him.

Is it possible to take the measure of a man by surveying the things he leaves behind? Do these objects truly have the power to inform us, or do we simply use them to form our own opinions and impressions?

Case in point: Louis Comfort Tiffany. Or, more accurately, the 130 plus examples of his work on display at Carnegie Museum of Art October 15, 2006 – January 15, 2007. The paintings, stained glass windows and lamps, Favrile glass vessels, jewelry, mosaics, enamels, pottery, metalwork, furniture, and desk sets that have been assembled—including several items from the Museum of Art’s own collection—represent the first comprehensive showing of his decorative art objects in the United States in nearly 20 years.

Offering museum goers a rare opportunity to look beyond their own Tiffany lamps, Louis Comfort Tiffany: Artist for the Ages tells the story of a man whose visionary art has managed to survive changing tastes, trends, and traditions to achieve an aura of timelessness. Carnegie Museum of Art is the final destination of this Exhibitions International tour that began in Seattle in 2005, with stops in Toledo and Dallas. (See also Distinctive Desk Sets: Useful Ornament from Tiffany Studios in the Museum of Art Treasure Room.)

Despite his prodigious imagination, Tiffany would never have predicted that the objects he created would find their way into a 21st-century museum. In fact, he feared his art would be forgotten, and it nearly was. By the early 1930s, Tiffany was viewed as an anachronism, and his works were valued more for their scrap appeal than beauty.

Although Pittsburgh department-store heir Edgar Kaufmann, Jr. was an early Tiffany aficionado (he purchased a Favrile vase in 1947, which he donated to the Museum of Modern Art’s design collection), the Tiffany revival didn’t get started in earnest until rock stars and other celebrities began seeing the light in the 1960s. Soon, Tiffany knockoffs were gracing living rooms throughout America. But the ultimate payday came in 1997 when an original Tiffany lotus lamp sold for a then-unprecedented $2.8 million at a Christie’s auction.

“Tiffany would be pleased that he’s admired,” asserts Elisabeth Agro, associate curator of Carnegie Museum of Art’s department of decorative arts.

Like Father, Like Son?

Born in New York in 1848 with the proverbial silver spoon in mouth, Tiffany was the eldest surviving son of Charles Lewis Tiffany. Yes, that Breakfast-at-Tiffany’s, good-things-come-in-little-blue-boxes, Fifth-Avenue-flagship-store Tiffany. Their relationship was mutually advantageous; throughout their lives each man would draw upon the other’s talent, reputation, and, at times, finances.

Opening the shop that would eventually become Tiffany & Co. in 1837, Charles hoped son Louis would carry on the family jewel. But Tiffany had other designs. As was customary for a young man of privilege in the 1860s—particularly a handsome, intelligent young man—he embarked on a “Grand Tour” of Europe and decided to follow his own muse—painting. His early Hudson River landscapes gave way to more exotic scenes of Egypt and other Northern African countries, places he visited as he expanded his travels.

It soon became apparent, however, that Tiffany had an incredible eye for beauty but not necessarily a great talent for painting. By the late 1870s, by then married with three children, Tiffany set his sights on a new career—interior decorating.

Up to this point, interior design was left to architects who tended to focus on the outside at the expense of the inside. According to Agro, Tiffany brought a new perspective to the fledgling profession. By mixing and matching different styles, trends, and influences from other countries (most notably, Asia and the Middle East), she explains, “He created his own decorative vocabulary.”

That lexicon included elements from the Art Nouveau (keyword: nature), Arts and Crafts (keyword: handmade), and the Aesthetic (keyword: beauty) movements that dominated the era.

Tiffany also attracted more than his share of high-profile projects—the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue and the White House under President Chester Arthur—and clients such as pharmaceutical millionaire George Kemp, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and Samuel Clemens (aka Mark Twain). Carnegie Museum of Art will be the only Artist for the Ages venue to display the Tiffany-designed, over-sized bifold door from the Mark Twain house at Nook Farm in Hartford, Conn.

As a decorator, he sought to transform not only a space but the objects that occupied it as well. And so his career and his passion found common ground.

A Glass Half Full

Tiffany famously proclaimed: “We are going after the money there is in art, but art is there all the same.” His pursuit of both goals prompted him to open, and close, a number of businesses, including L.C. Tiffany & Associated Artists, the Tiffany Glass Company, Tiffany Studios, and Tiffany Furnaces.

The constant themes fueling his undertakings were innovation and iridescence (a play of color caused by differential refraction of light waves). “Tiffany was a Renaissance man,” Agro says. “He created his own aesthetic using materials and designs from around the world.”

In 1881, Tiffany registered three glass patents: one for iridescent glass tesserae, another for superimposing stained-glass panels to enhance iridescence, and finally one for using metallic oxides to produce iridescence on window glass.

The 1880s brought other changes as well. His wife died in 1884, and over the next two years he built a new family home in Uptown Manhattan and remarried. This personal upheaval, however, seemed to have little impact on his professional and artistic ambitions. In 1894, he introduced his first Favrile (a term he coined himself, said to be derived from the Saxon word meaning “hand wrought”) glass vessel.

But just how much of a hand did Tiffany have in the actual design and creation of the many items that touted his name? Agro has her own answer.

“Tiffany was an impresario,” she says. And as the conductor of his various enterprises, he knew the entire score and directed his employees accordingly. But not all of his employees were pleased with that arrangement.

Leslie Nash, for one, did not believe he nor his father, Arthur, received their due. In “Behind the Scenes of Tiffany Glassmaking: The Nash Notebooks,” he wrote: “After 25 five years of hard work he gave me a potted plant for Christmas, knowing that two exhibitions gave him a gold medal for work he never had seen or had anything to do with. I personally designed and made the glass in peacock green luster, my invention, and known only to me.”

A number of women also worked behind the scenes for Tiffany. He preferred hiring female art students—in part, he was heard to say, because they tended to have a more fully developed sense of color than most men.

Some of Tiffany’s female students did gain notoriety and personal wealth. Clara Driscoll was credited with an award-winning dragonfly design, and at a salary of $10,000 a year was among the highest-paid women in the country at the time.

As the turn of the century dawned, Tiffany remained a vital creative force, generating a variety of products: glass-decorated metalwork (desk sets, picture frames, and candlesticks), furniture, and pottery. He also turned his attention to Laurelton Hall, his 580-acre Long Island estate, which became a home for Tiffany and his family, a museum for his vast array of art objects and a school for young artists.

As the forces of Art Moderne and Expressionism began to gain influence, Tiffany found himself losing favor. Following the 1929 stock market crash, the Tiffany Design Studios declared bankruptcy, and two years later Tiffany died. Laurelton Hall met a similarly sad fate in the late 1950s, when it was destroyed by fire.

Into the Light

Time has definitely been on Tiffany’s side. Today, Tiffany is a household name, primarily synonymous with lamps and stained glass. But as Louis Comfort Tiffany: Artist for the Ages shows, the sum of his many parts adds up to a lifetime devoted to beauty.

Several themes pervaded Tiffany’s work and are the focus of the exhibition. “Nature is Always Beautiful” was Tiffany’s mantra. “Light Comes from the East” details his unique synthesis of Asian and Middle Eastern influences. “Time is the Measure of All Things: Toward the Future” tells of his many innovations and experiments. “Time is the Measure of All Things: From the Past” offers a glimpse into his fascination with history, archaeology, and antiquities.

A rare and beautiful view indeed.

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