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Electric Tiffany

June 3 - October 8, 2006


The Paine Art Center and Gardens in Oshkosh, Wisconsin is presenting Electric Tiffany, the largest exhibition ever shown outside New York of original lamps by world-renowned American artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany.

On view through October 8, 2006, Electric Tiffany is organized and presented solely by the Paine and features fifty exceptional lamps displaying the full spectrum of the inspired use of electric light. Tiffany lamps are beloved by Americans, yet the public rarely gets to see original lamps by the master to appreciate their superior qualities.

Produced primarily between 1895 and 1920, Tiffany's remarkable lamps coincided with the development of electricity and signify his quest to bring beauty to American homes. Tiffany developed the lamp into an entirely new art form, pioneering the artistic use of the light bulb to create decorative objects that were both elegant and utilitarian. Tiffany Studios produced more than 400 different designs for both shades and bases in a variety of forms, ranging from table and desk lamps to hanging fixtures to floor lamps. Botanical themes inspired most designs, but other motifs show Tiffany's interest in insects, Moorish art and architecture, and geometric patterns. Electric Tiffany demonstrates this immense diversity and celebrates the creativity, innovation, and exquisite craftsmanship of Tiffany's magnificent lamps.


Resource Guide for the Exhibition:

"As radiant today as a century ago when they were first introduced, Louis Comfort Tiffany's lamps are emblems of an opulent age." ­ Martin Eidelberg, The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany (2005)

Electric Tiffany features fifty original lamps created by the studios of renowned American artist and designer Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). Produced at the turn of the century, primarily between 1895 and 1920, Tiffany's remarkable lamps coincided with the development of electricity and signify his quest to bring beauty to American homes. Ultimately, Tiffany developed the lamp into an entirely new art form, pioneering the artistic use of the newly invented light bulb to create decorative objects that were both elegant and utilitarian.

Tiffany Studios produced more than 400 different designs for both shades and bases in a variety of forms, ranging from table and floor lamps to hanging fixtures. Botanical themes inspired most designs, but others show Tiffany's interest in Islamic and Moorish motifs, fauna, and geometric patterns. Electric Tiffany demonstrates this immense diversity and celebrates the creativity, innovation, and exquisite craftsmanship of Tiffany's magnificent lamps.


Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933)

Louis Comfort Tiffany was born in New York and was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, prominent founder of the silver and jewelry firm Tiffany & Co. At an early age Louis decided against entering the family business in order to pursue a career as a painter. From 1862 to 1865 he attended Eagleswood Military Academy in New Jersey, where he studied informally with American landscape painter George Inness.

As a young man, Tiffany traveled abroad to Europe and North Africa, which had a profound effect on his artistic development. He studied firsthand medieval stained glass windows, Roman glass, and Islamic art and architecture and developed a taste for the exotic. He later recalled: "When I first had a chance to travel in the East . . . the preeminence of color in the world was brought forcibly to my attention. 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 in our architecture and our clothing when nature indicates its mastership." Throughout his remarkable career, Tiffany cultivated this interest in other cultures and excelled as a colorist.

In the 1860s and '70s Tiffany received critical acclaim for his oil paintings and was elected the youngest member of the National Academy of Design. Despite his initial success, Tiffany feared his lack of formal artistic training would hinder his career as a fine artist. He turned to the less competitive field of interior design and decorative arts where he believed he could make a more profound impact. The success of the family business also shaped Louis's career path, as he grew surrounded by luxury goods both at home and at his father's store. From his experience as a painter, he had acquired keen observation skills and an intimate understanding of color and light. These abilities translated perfectly to his decorative work. Demonstrating spectacular artistry, attention to detail, and an expert sense of visual effects, Tiffany's lamps reveal the talent of a fine artist.


The Founding of Tiffany Studios

Along with a group of fellow artists, Tiffany founded an interior décor firm in 1879 with the primary mission of bringing art to American homes. By the early 1880s Tiffany was working on leaded glass windows and other interior design commissions for prominent individuals like Mark Twain, Cornelius Vanderbilt, and President Chester Arthur at the White House. As a member of New York's elite, Tiffany was well suited to design opulent interiors for wealthy clients. Many schemes included decorative lighting elements, such as sconces and chandeliers. The firm also fulfilled ecclesiastical commissions, creating windows, candelabra, light fixtures, and other decorative items for churches around the country. In 1885 Tiffany was invited to collaborate with Thomas Edison on a lighting scheme-including chandeliers and sconces-for the Lyceum Theatre in New York, the first electrically lit theater. Edison had patented the incandescent light bulb in 1879, and electric lighting was starting to appear in select businesses and well-to-do homes.

The firm went through several changes in name and ownership, but by 1885 was owned solely by Tiffany and eventually named Tiffany Studios. At its peak at the turn of the 20th century, Tiffany Studios would employ hundreds of craftspeople in the production of glass vases, leaded glass windows, mosaics, lamps, ceramics, furniture, and numerous other forms of decorative arts. The immense enterprise had specialized facilities such as furnaces for making glass, a foundry for casting bronze, and workshops for designing and assembling the various artworks. Despite the number of artisans involved, Tiffany maintained strict control over the artistry and quality of everything produced. In an incredibly prolific career that spanned 57 years, Tiffany would become one of America's most influential artists and designers.


Tiffany's Innovations in Glass

Tiffany first experimented with glassmaking in 1873, yet did not focus his attention on the medium until more than a decade later. During this initial period, Tiffany worked with commercial glass houses in Brooklyn. In 1881 he registered for a patent for the flat opalescent glass used in his windows. Exhibiting a milky or pearly iridescence like an opal, opalescent glass combined several colors to create a range of hues and textures in a single sheet. This innovation allowed Tiffany to break with centuries-old, medieval stained glass techniques. Stained glass windows had been created using sheets of clear or uniformly colored glass which artists painted with enamel in order to achieve visual effects such as shading. Tiffany eliminated the need for painting the glass by producing glass sheets that incorporated shading, streaking, varying levels of opacity, textures, and a multitude of colors. His use of opalescent glass in his windows, and later in his leaded glass lampshades, was like painting with the glass itself.

In 1892 Tiffany opened his own furnaces, where he worked with a team of chemists and master glassmaker Arthur J. Nash, whom he hired from England, to develop further innovations in glass. Tiffany's iridescent blown glass was patented in 1894 under the name Favrile, derived from an Old English word for handcrafted. Tiffany used the term Favrile to refer to the glass's handmade quality, rather than to refer to a specific type of glass. Favrile glass could be produced in a range of colors, patterns, and forms, resulting in remarkable vases, stemware, and lampshades. With his own facilities, Tiffany gained the artistic autonomy that allowed him to create anything his vibrant imagination could conjure.

Tiffany also opened facilities for casting bronze, thus enabling him to produce more types of decorative items for the home. The lamps, with their glass shades and bronze bases, would become part of this ever-expanding business. That same year he received an important commission for Henry O. Havemeyer's home in New York. The commission included chandeliers and sconces, but also a few portable fuel lamps that were probably the first table lamps he created.

Tiffany continued to travel throughout his career, successfully promoting his work at the great international fairs of the time. At the famed 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago, which drew 1.5 million visitors, he won 54 medals and gained international exposure for his display of windows, liturgical wares, and an ornate Byzantine Chapel. The Chapel showcased a colossal electrolier, or electric chandelier, indicating that Tiffany recognized electric lighting as the path of the future. Tiffany Studios' lamps were first offered for public sale in 1894, but were not advertised until 1898, which also marks the introduction of the leaded glass shades. Tiffany's innovations in glassmaking, his work with Edison, and the decorative lighting he designed for lavish interiors paved the way for the electric lamps that are so beloved today.


The Appeal of Tiffany's Electric Lamps

Important precursors to the electric lamps are the lamps lit by candle and fuel that Tiffany created. Electric Tiffany features a selection of extraordinary candlesticks with Favrile shades, which reveal the artist's early interest in elegant forms of lighting and in the play of light on glass. In the early 1890s Tiffany created a series of fuel lamps, which possess heavier proportions than electric lamps because they required canister-shaped bases for fuel. The electric light bulb played a significant role in the refinement of lamp design. Eliminating the need for a canister base allowed Tiffany to create elegant bronze bases in a range of slender, elongated forms, including floor lamps.

By 1898 Tiffany Studios had created several electric lamps, including many converted from fuel to electricity. Tiffany Studios' advertisements from 1903 promoted primarily electric lamps, and that year a writer for a popular arts magazine declared: "To the far-famed Tiffany ateliers of New York must the rest of the world come for what is rare and beautiful in the way of objects of every description to conduct electric light." A 1906 price list records an impressive array of 300 fuel lamps, 200 electric lamp bases and shades, and 200 hanging shades, indicating the popularity of Tiffany's lamps. Nearly all fuel lamps were discontinued by 1910 when electricity use was more widespread.

While the most recognizable lamps today are those with leaded glass shades, many lamps feature blown glass Favrile shades. Tiffany Studios produced table lamps, chandeliers, ceiling fixtures, floor lamps, and candlesticks with elaborate designs inspired by lush vegetation, fauna, Moorish and Islamic art, historical styles, geometric patterns, and countless other sources. Rather than a stylistic progression from one form of decoration to another, they worked on most themes concurrently. They were able to create hundreds of models because many shades and bases were closely related to one another in form, ornament, or motif. Tiffany was a shrewd businessman who embraced modern technology, such as electricity and an industrialized system in which the design process could be streamlined by offering variations on successful models and by the interchangeability of shades, bases, and finials.

Multiple copies of almost all designs were created, yet the total number remains unknown, as certain models were produced over many years and in different color schemes. While Tiffany's lamps were rarely one-of-a-kind (except special commissions), they were entirely handmade and retain their uniqueness in the individual pieces of glass. Glass colors, textures, and effects vary immensely, thus a more skillful combination of glass could determine whether one lamp is more sought-after today than another version of the same model.

Unlike leaded glass windows, which relied on sunlight for illumination, Tiffany's lampshades could be illuminated at any time of day or night. In addition, the lamps were portable and did not have to be incorporated within the architectural structure of the home. Tiffany's lamps became small, sculptural versions of the leaded glass windows. While far less expensive than the windows (which cost thousands of dollars), the lamps were still considered luxury goods with original retail prices ranging from $30 to $750. Considering the average annual income in 1900 was approximately $700, Tiffany's lamps became status symbols. They were so costly due to the labor-intensive process of creating them and the quality of the materials. Lamps could be purchased from Tiffany Studios' showrooms and catalogues, Tiffany & Co., Siegfried Bing's L' Art Nouveau gallery in Paris (which gave the international Art Nouveau movement its name), and in prominent department stores such as Marshall Field's. Tiffany was highly successful in the United States as well as in Europe, where his work mirrored the turn-of-the-century Art Nouveau movement and its dedication to elegant, curvilinear forms derived from nature.

Although the lamps remained fashionable throughout the first two decades of the twentieth century, by 1910 numerous successful models had already been discontinued, including the Nasturtium and the Black-eyed Susan. This downsizing reveals the start of the lamp production's gradual transition and eventual decline. Several new models introduced in the 1910s were more formal and historical in nature, paralleling Americans' increasingly conservative tastes. Favrilefabrique shades (also called "linenfold") imitating pleated fabric were designed at this time. Lamp production still flourished, yet the leaded glass shades were no longer dominant. When the United States entered WWI in 1917, production drastically waned as factory operations turned toward the war effort. Meanwhile, Tiffany had become less involved with the company's daily operations.

Botanical, geometric, and "linenfold" shades were still made in the early 1920s. Many shades, such as Peony, Poppy, and Daffodil, had been introduced two decades earlier and remained in demand. Production of leaded glass shades likely halted in 1924 when Tiffany Furnaces was legally dissolved and A. Douglas Nash Company was founded in its place. Most lamps sold after that date were those remaining in stock. Tiffany Studios filed for bankruptcy in 1932 during the Great Depression, and Tiffany died shortly thereafter in January 1933.


Inspired by Nature

Nature was Tiffany's passion, and his career exemplified his lifelong pursuit of beauty and the inspiration he drew from his natural surroundings. He often proclaimed "Nature is always beautiful," believing that art and nature were inextricably linked. Nature-based subjects prevailed in all of his various media, including lamps, the most famous of which were those with floral motifs.

Tiffany and his family maintained a residence in New York City as well as a summer estate in Long Island. Completed in 1904, Laurelton Hall was a 580-acre estate designed by Tiffany in an extravagant Near Eastern, palatial style that embodied his taste for the exotic and his love of nature. The extensive gardens, grounds, and conservatories provided Tiffany and his colleagues a laboratory where they could study nature firsthand. The property was dense with overgrown gardens, lush flowering trees, vines and trellises, water-lily ponds, bog and marsh areas, and vegetable gardens. Plants filled the house as well, and a central courtyard was filled with seasonal plants and floral arrangements. Although Tiffany's personal wealth would have allowed him to import plants, he preferred indigenous species as the focus of his gardens and his artwork.

Tiffany brought plant specimens into his workshops for designers to study, as well as photographs and published flora and fauna albums in the off-season. He was part of an international trend advocating ornament derived from nature rather than copying historical forms. He gleaned ideas from all aspects of plant life-stems, leaves, buds, flowers, and even seed pods.


Tiffany's Legacy

Louis Comfort Tiffany combined his love of color, nature, and decoration in every aspect of his prolific career. One of his greatest accomplishments was the transformation of a utilitarian, household object into a fine art object. Given the lamps' popularity today, it is difficult to comprehend why they fell out of favor in the 1920s and 1930s. Many owners saw them as too fussy and ornate and gave them to servants or even discarded or deliberately destroyed them. Stories from the 1930s and '40s recount how glass was broken out of leaded shades so the metal could be melted down and sold during the Depression and WWII. A gradual rediscovery of these magnificent lamps began in the mid-1950s when museum exhibitions began to highlight Tiffany's work.

Today Tiffany's lamps are highly sought after by museums and collectors for their outstanding artistry, and prices have increased dramatically due to demand in the art market for rare, authentic examples. They have become overwhelmingly popular throughout the world not only because of the stunning effect of light filtered through colored glass, but also due to their appearance on programs like the "Antiques Roadshow" and the countless modern-day reproductions created in the style of Tiffany. Although reproduction "Tiffany-style" lamps may capture some of the initial stylistic qualities of an original lamp, they lack the refinement, superior glass, and craftsmanship of Tiffany's dazzling originals. His lamps emphasize his dedication to the total work of art, in which every detail-from the base to the shade to the finial-contributed to the overall extraordinary aesthetic effect.


How the Leaded Glass Shades Were Made

Derived from Tiffany's techniques for leaded glass windows, the design and fabrication processes for the shades were complex and very labor intensive. The process began with a design for a selected motif, probably first rendered in graphite. Watercolor sketches were created in varying degrees of completeness, culminating in a full-scale color study. These studies were created by one of the firm's designers or by Tiffany himself. After approving the initial design, Tiffany then considered what type of glass would be used for the lamp. Sometimes the glass had to be specially formulated and fabricated for a particular model.

Existing watercolor studies by various artisans bear Tiffany's signature of approval, which further attests that everything was made under his careful supervision. A prototype shade for each new design was made and mounted on a base produced by the Studios' foundries. Tiffany would once again grant approval. If he thought a particular design was highly successful, he requested that additional color schemes or sizes be developed. If he did not approve the prototype, it was destroyed or sold to an employee.

A full-scale, black-and-white line drawing of the pattern, which outlined each individual piece of glass, was made on paper. Each shape was assigned a number, and a template was made out of brass for each piece and inscribed with the corresponding number on the drawing. The templates were used to guide the cutting of the pieces of glass. The same drawing was then inscribed onto a wooden mold of the shade.

Meanwhile, glass selectors were busy determining which glass would be used for each shape in the design. Glass selectors were artistic men and women trained by Tiffany specifically for this role. Most glass selectors were women, as Tiffany believed they had a better sense of color. The selectors carefully chose glass that possessed the color and texture they were seeking for a particular petal or leaf, working closely with the glass cutters who cut and trimmed the pieces to the exact size of the templates.

Thin strips of copper foil were wrapped around the perimeter of each piece of glass and adhered with a coating of beeswax. Their use of copper foil was yet another technical innovation. It created much thinner lines between the pieces of glass, as opposed to the thick leading in earlier stained glass. The foiled glass pieces were probably assembled like a jigsaw puzzle on the numbered drawing, then taken to the workman who soldered the pieces together. Working on one section at a time, glass pieces were assembled on the wooden mold, using small pins to hold them in place, and then soldered together. After all the glass pieces were soldered together, the top opening's metal ring was connected to the shade, and the wooden mold was removed. The bottom ring was then added, which further stabilized the shade, and the shade was turned upside-down and soldered on its interior surface.

Once completely assembled, a patina was applied so the dull gray solder lines took on a darker bronze or black tone to complement the bases. The patination process entailed immersing the shade in an electroplating bath and then coating the soldered lines with a copper deposit. The sculptural bases were also patinated, achieving the characteristic green and reddish-brown highlights that were difficult for competitors to reproduce.

Given this elaborate process-including making the glass, creating the bases, designing and assembling the shades, and finishing the shades-it is remarkable that thousands of lamps were created in a relatively brief time span. Even though Tiffany Studios was a vast enterprise involving scores of artisans who worked on the lamps, the inspiration, concepts, attention to detail, and style were all Louis Comfort Tiffany himself.


Selected Sources:

Tiffany by Jacob Baal-Teshuva (Taschen, 2001)
Louis C. Tiffany: Garden Museum Collection by Alastair Duncan (Antique Collectors Club, 2004)
The Lamps of Louis Comfort Tiffany by Martin Eidelberg, et al. (Vendome Press, 2005)
Louis Comfort Tiffany at the Metropolitan Museum of Art by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen (1998)
Louis Comfort Tiffany: Artist for the Ages by Marilynn Johnson, et al. (Scala, 2005)


Electric Tiffany is organized and presented by the Paine Art Center and Gardens. Loans to the exhibition are provided from private collections through the courtesy of Heritage Lighting of Cedarburg, Wisconsin.


(above: Octagonal Leaded Glass and Mosaic Table Lamp)


(above: Poppy Table Lamp)


(above: Mandarin Table Lamp)


(above: Laburnum Table Lamp)


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