Finding The Right Niche, Building a Lasting Brand : Notes on Louis Comfort Tiffany
Feb. 18 is the birthday of an American painter whose talent for business provided work for many other artists. His commercial success made his name synonymous with beautiful glasswork.
Which of the images below best represents what the word ‘Tiffany’ means for you?
It’s likely that what sprang to mind was something like this picture of one of Tiffany’s famous windows.
Very few people would think first of Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848–1933) as a painter. His name for many decades has called to mind beautiful stained glass windows and lamps. But painting is where he began his artistic career, and it remained an interest for him throughout his life.
The son of the famous jeweler Charles Tiffany, Louis Comfort Tiffany was able to travel extensively as a young man. He spent time in Europe and, around 1870, visited North Africa.
But after these travels, Tiffany settled in his hometown of New York where he turned to the decorative arts.
Tiffany so well promoted a certain style of art that people can be forgiven for thinking, “Oh a Tiffany,” on seeing any magnificent window made in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
That was my reaction years ago on first seeing the work of W. Cole Brigham (1870–1941) years ago at the Brooklyn Museum. Influenced by Tiffany, Brigham developed a style he called Marine Mosaic, adding seashells and quartz river stones to his windows.
It seems an even worse slight when museum visitors see the work of John La Farge (1835–1910) and credit it to Tiffany. La Farge and Tiffany were great rivals in their day, although La Farge is not well known today.
Brand Name — Built by Loyal Employees
What gave Tiffany his lasting monopoly on Americans’ notions about decorative stained glass was his commercial success. La Farge and other rivals largely stuck with making windows for the extremely wealthy. Tiffany branched out into vases, lamps and other decorative items that were in reach for the affluent as well.
Tiffany had several business ventures, with the best known being Tiffany Studios. Around 1893, he built a glasshouse in the Corona neighborhood of Queens. He received help from his wealthy father, but deserves credit for creating a business that helped shape Americans’ appreciation and desire for beautiful things.
Tiffany could only achieve this by employing many talented artists and designers.
There’s a charming scene in Susan Vreeland’s book “Clara and Mr. Tiffany” about how Tiffany speaking about his expansion plans with Clara Driscoll Clara Driscoll (1861–1944), one of his designers credited with the firm’s expansion into stained glass lamps. Vreeland’s book is classed as fictionalized account of Driscoll’s life, but it draws heavily on primary sources. (There’s a link at the end of this essay to a bibliography with details on the sources used in my research on Tiffany.)
In the book, Tiffany tells Driscoll he has become interested in clocks.
“ ‘People who can’t afford a window can afford a clock, and that will bring beauty into more homes. Some day, Clara, design me a clock that will make people value time’,” Tiffany tells Driscoll in the book.
The work we most identify with Tiffany may often have been built under his direction, but reflects the ideas and creativity of other arts.
Below is how the website of the Morse Museum describes Tiffany’s enterprise.
“Louis Tiffany’s studio system was not a simple enterprise; he needed specialized workers to accomplish his goals. Under Tiffany’s watch, teams of talented designers and craftspeople translated his all-encompassing vision into the beautiful objects — blown-glass vases, leaded-glass windows and lamps, pottery, jewelry, and more — that captivated an era.”
Major contributors to the Tiffany brand included Driscoll as well as Will H. Low (1853–1932), Lydia Emmet (1866–1952), Frederick Wilson (1858–1932), Joseph Lauber (1855–1948), Edward P. Sperry (d. 1925), Agnes Fairchild Northrop (1857–1953) and Alice Carmen Gouvy (1863–1924). The New York Historical Society organized a traveling exhibition, “A New Light on Tiffany” that sough to draw more attention to the many female artists employed by the studios.
There’s certainly room for debate about how fair it is that Tiffany didn’t fully share credit with his workers for the many beautiful things they produced in his studios. But the same could be said of many entrepreneurial artists throughout history, such as El Greco whose workshops produced far more paintings that he could have alone.
What’s clear is that Tiffany’s work and vision left the United States a far prettier country than it had been.
Tiffany sought to have his Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall, serve as place where future artists could take in lessons from his work. Nature long served as Tiffany’s chief inspiration, as made clear in Joaquin Sorolla’s portrait below. We see Tiffany surrounded by flowers, wearing a natty suit while posed at his easel.
But Tiffany’s estate fell on hard times in the years after his death in 1933. Fire and financial ruin and neglect left Laurelton Hall in rubble. What remains of Tiffany’s legacy is a persisting American appreciation for the play of light on colored glass, bringing us the artist’s vision of a brighter natural world.
There is an entry for Tiffany in my bibliography for research on American artists. For more on Tiffany’s great rival, read my essay, “Peony Windows and Patent Wars: Thoughts on an Artist Who Revolutionized Stained Glass.”