Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was born into the aristocracy of American fine jewellery. His father Charles Lewis Tiffany established Tiffany & Co in Manhattan in 1837 and opened his first shop in Paris in 1850 having acquired a cache of jewels following the abdication of France’s last king Louis-Philippe in 1848; the same year Louis Comfort Tiffany was born. When the French Republic sold the Crown Jeweis in 1887, Charles Lewis acquired a third of the collection.
In a formidable creative career that spanned the 1870s to the 1920s, Louis Comfort Tiffany excelled in every medium of the artisan’s craft and formed a bridge between the great design movements Art Nouveau and Art Deco. According to New York’s Metropolitan Museum biography, ‘Tiffany embraced virtually every artistic and decorative medium, designing and directing his studios to produce leaden-glass windows, mosaics, lighting, glass, pottery, metalwork, enamels, jewellery and interiors’.
A child of privilege, Tiffany first pursued painting. He toured Europe, North America and North Africa with his mentor Robert Swain Gifford. In the latter, he painted his masterpiece Snake Charmer at Tangier completed in 1872 that was exhibited at the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia and now hangs in the Met. In the late 1870s, Tiffany directed his talents towards the decorative arts and interior design. From 1885 he lived and worked from a studio/apartment on top of his father’s Romanesque revival mansion on the Northwest corner of 72nd Street and Madison Avenue.
From a relatively young age, Tiffany set fashions in interior decoration in America. His Celtic-inspired Rembrandt Room for patrons Louisine and Henry Osborne Havemeyer were much celebrated as were his pioneering stained glass window in which he was said to ‘paint’ with opalescent molten glass which was a revolutionary technique compared to the flat colour palette used since the Medieval age. In 1881 Tiffany designed the interiors for the Mark Twain House in Connecticut and in 1882 President Chester Alan Arthur commissioned him to redecorate the White House. Everything, including a masterly floor to celing glass screen in the Entrance Hall was removed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902.
In 1889 Tiffany was said to be ‘overwhelmed’ by the French Art Nouveau glassmaker Emile Galle whose work he saw at the Paris Exposition. He was also influenced by Alphonse Mucha and English Father of the Arts & Crafts Movement William Morris. In 1892, Tiffany built his glasshouse in Queens and developed the method of constructing mosaics of stained glass panelling surrounded by lead frames with master glassblower Arthur Nash. The technique was christened ‘Favrile’; an Old English word for hand-wrought.
Tiffany began experimenting with stained glass lampshades in 1898 and his most famous shape was the Water Lily lamp; a sinuous, languid Art Deco stand made of bronze composed of lily pads supporting the stained glass ‘flower’ inspired in part by mosaics in Byzantine churches such as the cathedral at Ravenna. In 1899, Tiffany introduced enamelwork at an exhibition in London. The Tiffany Studio, founded in 1902 in the same year he built his country home Larelton Hall on Long Island (destroyed by fire in the 1950s), employed over 300 artisans including the ‘Tiffany Girls’. Led by Clara Driscoll, the Tiffany Girls were all unmarried and connoisseurs can identify their individual hand in pieces of antique Tiffany glass and ceramics.
1902 was an important year for Tiffany. Following his father’s death, Louis Comfort was appointed Art Director of Tiffany & Company. The position has since been held by some of the greats of 20th century jewellery design such as Jean Schlumberger, Elsa Peretti, John Loring and Paloma Picasso. Tiffany’s Art Nouveau jewellery is much prized on the secondary market and is exceptional for its use of naturalistic motifs, semi-precious stones and exquisite hand-crafted enamelling. His masterpiece in stained glass was a vast glass curtain commissioned for the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City in 1911.
Louis Comfort Tiffany’s personal life was uneventful. He married first Mary Woodbridge Goddard in 1872 with whom he had four children and, following her death, Louise Wakeman Knox in 1886 who bore him four more. Tiffany’s creative career ended with a whimper rather than a bang when he retired in the 1920s. The Tiffany Studios filed for bankruptcy in 1932 a year before his death. Writing his own epitaph, Tiffany said his life was ‘dedicated to the pursuit of beauty’.
In a macabre post script, former Christie’s New York consultant and world expert on Louis Comfort Tiffany Alastair Duncan was sent to jail for two years having been found guilty of procuring and selling Tiffany stained glass windows pilfered from mausolea in cemeteries in and around the island of Manhattan. In 1999 fellow antiques expert Katie Karrick told the International Herald Tribune that Tiffany stained glass had been stolen-to-order from New York State’s cemeteries since the 1960s. The grave-robbing that sent Duncan down was a nine-foot Tiffany stained glass window stolen from a cemetery in Brooklyn and offered to a buyer in Japan for $219,000.