Louis Comfort Tiffany: Aesthetic Staple of Art Nouveau? | New Britain Museum of American Art

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Louis Comfort Tiffany: Aesthetic Staple of Art Nouveau?

This post comes to us from Jenny Haskins, Curatorial Intern.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Au Nouveau Cirque: Papa Chrysanthéme, after Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. Stained-glass window, 1894-5, Musée d’Orsay, Paris

Art Nouveau (or “New Art”) was a brief, but significant movement occurring in the late-19th to early-20th centuries. It had a powerful influence on other movements, including Art Deco and Modernism. The spirit of Art Nouveau will visit the New Britain Museum’s McKernan Gallery  when The Brilliance of Louis Comfort Tiffany: Painter and Craftsman replaces Toulouse-Lautrec and His World. The two exhibitions are appropriately sequenced since Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s (1864–1901) highly decorative lithographs are considered to have given way to the Art Nouveau movement, though the exact initial source is arguable and vague. Although I am sad to know that the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit will eventually come to an end, it is exciting that the work of an artist who was a major influence on the American Art Nouveau movement will be taking its place.

It is easy to recognize Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) as essential to the flourishing of American decorative arts during the turn of the 20th century. He was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany (1812–1902), the founder of one of my favorite jewelers, Tiffany & Co. Although Tiffany worked closely with his father’s renowned company (he became the first design director of the company upon his father’s passing), his primary interest remained in art. Tiffany was a successful paintiner, not to mention a prolific designer of stained glass, lamps, mosaics, metal work, ceramics and jewelry. In 1885, he created Tiffany Studios, a glass manufacturing and design company that made lamps, stained glass windows and vases with the assistance of skillful designers and artisans. It wasn’t long before Tiffany became an international sensation.

Caption: Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co., Window, c. 1890, Stained glass in period oak frame, 49 x 36 in., The Mark Twain House & Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas C. Beach, 1975.50.1

Tiffany Glass & Decorating Co., Window, c. 1890, Stained glass in period oak frame, 49 x 36 in., The Mark Twain House & Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas C. Beach, 1975.50.1

It is hard to pinpoint whether the growth of American Art Nouveau was merely concurrent with Tiffany’s life or a result of his artistic career. The movement originated in Europe, a branch growing from the trunk of the Arts and Crafts movement of the late-19th century. The artists of Art Nouveau endeavored to grasp the union of art and craft and sought to modernize design. They followed the rule “form follows function,” meaning they considered utilitarian objects as fine art. The movement mirroring this in America was often referred to as “Tiffany Style,” in reference to Louis Comfort Tiffany.

It is interesting that over time, Tiffany is increasingly associated with the Art Nouveau movement. Although Tiffany himself never applied the term to his creations, during his lifetime he showed works at Siegfried Bing’s (1838–1905) shop in Paris for an exhibition titled L’Art Nouveau, which gave the style its very name. In the 1930’s, American critics were referencing his lampshades when writing about the movement. Finally in 1960, a groundbreaking Art Nouveau exhibition took place at the Museum of Modern Art claiming Tiffany as “the American master of the style.” Since then, it has become almost impossible to bring up Art Nouveau without mentioning Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Upon learning about Tiffany’s art, I have become more and more fascinated with him as an individual. His accomplishments stemmed from a hard-working mindset coupled with a desire to carve his own path and make a name apart from the legacy of his father. However, as did Lautrec, Tiffany came from a family of financial means, which allowed him to experiment freely and take creative risks without the fear of financial ruin. His father’s support and connections also allowed him to travel widely, secure early commissions, and work with stained glass, a relatively expensive  medium and one that required the help of many hands to produce on a large scale. Still, without independent talents and innovative ideas, Tiffany’s career could never have triumphantly floushed to the extent that it did.

Louis Comfort Tiffany Untitled (Seated Nude at Lily Pond), n/d. Oil on canvas. 24 ¼ x 23 ½ in. Nassau County Museum of Art

Like Lautrec, Tiffany also created art with commercial appeal. They both used decorative motifs and helped revolutionize what was considered “art” during their lifetimes. I think it’s interesting that the Museum decided to organize this order of exhibitions. It will provide a great example for how one style can develop into another, and how artistic influence can flow from  different corners of the world. The New Britain Museum of American Art presents The Brilliance of Louis Comfort Tiffany beginning May 24th until September 29th with an opening reception on May 30th from 5:30–7 p.m. in the McKernan Gallery. The gallery will hold a variety of Tiffany’s work, including over 100 paintings from his little known career as a  painter. Visit the Museum this summer to discover not only his luminous paintings, but also the decorative objects that have come to embody Art Nouveau.What similarities or differences can you find between Lautrec and Tiffany? In what ways is Tiffany’s style distinctly American? In what ways is it influenced by other artists and cultures?

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Louis Comfort Tiffany was born on January 17, 1848, the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, and began his career as a painter in the 1860s and 1870s. His father Charles had founded the most prestigious jewelry and silver store in America Tiffany & Co., so young Louis grew up surrounded by the decorative arts. Charles Tiffany introduced the nation's first retail catalogue, and his obsession with the simple elegance of classic silver design earned Tiffany & Co. the highly coveted Award of Merit at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1867. This was the first time an American company had been recognized by a European jury.

After studying under the American landscape painter George Inness, Lewis Comfort Tiffany learned to combine the use of light, color and nature in his work. He received praise for his oils and watercolors, which included scenes from his travels in Europe and North Africa. By 1880, Tiffany had established himself as a artist and became the youngest member of the National Academy of Design. Already at this young age, Tiffany dedicated his life to "the pursuit of beauty."

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