Becoming Tiffany: From HV Painter to Gilded Age Tastemaker

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by Linda Viertel –

Louis Comfort Tiffany, a name synonymous with vibrant, diaphonous, and richly glowing stained-glass window scenes and, well, glorious Tiffany lamps, had a surprisingly prolific career as an artist and interior designer well before he began designing his signature works. And, for the first time, more than 50 of Tiffany’s rarely seen creations, examples of his early oil paintings and glasswork, have been assembled at Lyndhurst’s carriage house and mansion – now on view until September 24.

Tiffany Corner Chair —David L. Petrovsky Collection

It makes perfect sense to amass this beautifully curated exhibit at Lyndhurst, reestablishing, as it does, Helen Gould, Jay Gould’s eldest daughter, as the significant Tiffany patron she was. Railroad baron Jay Gould not only commissioned a stained-glass window for his family mausoleum in the Bronx’s Woodlawn Cemetery (exhibited at Lyndhurst for the first time) but curatorial research discovered the Goulds to be early and consistent purchasers of Tiffany’s works.

Becoming Tiffany begins with the 1870’s, displaying the artist as a second-generation Hudson Valley painter, but with added painterly and technical skills and an artistic vision enhanced by his travels to France. “The Reaper,” influenced by the Barbizon School and the teachings of one of its founders, Jean Millet, displays not only a profound realism but glorifies physical labor with a golden haze that brings the reaper into a godly and virtuous light. Tiffany’s “Pushing Off, Seabright, New Jersey” harkens to Maine’s premier painter, Winslow Homer, but with a socio-economic underpinning: in the forefront is the back of one African-American seaman, emblematic of the disenfranchisement northern blacks were experiencing with the return of Caucasian soldiers from the Civil War. “Old New York (Duane Street)” depicts the African American neighborhood that was destroyed to construct the Brooklyn Bridge. Other paintings reference increased industrialization along his beloved Hudson River.

“The Reaper,” n.d., Oil on canvas. – National Academy of Design;

Tiffany’s 1880’s paintings may have been challenging for the Acadamy and the reason he then became an interior decorator, helped by his social contacts with his family’s wealthy Gilded Age compatriots not only in Westchester but in Manhattan. In this period, he traveled to Egypt and Morocco, which inspired not only his Orientalist paintings, but also Near Eastern decorative patterns in his glasswork and furniture. These motifs also appeared in his work designing synagogues for the Jewish communities in Buffalo and Albany, a radical commission at a time when such intermingling was frowned upon socially.

Iconic Tiffany Dragonfly reading lamp

After Jay Gould’s death in the 1890’s, Helen Gould became an inveterate collector of Tiffany’s decorative works such as enameled vases, mosaics, aquamarine vases, favrile (an “L.C.T” patented glass creation – iridescent and free-shaped) vases and lamps. She also commissioned windows in commemoration of her parents; Tiffany’s watercolor illustrations for these windows are on display. A large and exquisite stained-glass moth glare screen hangs decorously from a Tiffany lamp, purchased to deflect newly “powerful” electrical light from lamps previously dimly lit by kerosene. Helen Gould and other Tiffany patrons’ eyes must have been unaccustomed to the light electricity emitted even when diffused through the lamps’ deeply colored stained glass.

“Pushing Off the Boat at Sea Bright, New Jersey,”1887 –Nassau County Museum of Art

The exhibit’s final gallery section is devoted to Helen Gould’s important commissions for churches and libraries, the most famous being Stanford White’s iconic NYU Library. Here we also see an impressionistic window from Irvington’s Presbyterian Church on South Broadway– donated by Tiffany to his family’s church, a turtle-back sconce from the Tiffany Room in Irvington’s Town Hall (formerly in the Irvington Public Library), and the watercolor illustrations for the Gould mausoleum windows.

Tiffany stained-glass window: doe drinking scene — Photo: Allen Michaan

Moving into the Lyndhurst mansion, visitors will see a plethora of Tiffany lamps purchased by Helen Gould beginning in the 1890’s when kerosene provided light. As she electrified her Fifth Avenue mansion and Lyndhurst, she continued purchasing Tiffany lamps and displayed them prominently throughout her homes: the most elaborate floral lamps graced her public downstairs rooms, while simpler ones decorated her upstairs bedrooms and offices.

Lyndhurst’s executive director, Howard Zar, and his curatorial assistants have charted the career of a well-known American artist whose often ground-breaking and radical stances were hitherto unknown. Becoming Tiffany is not only revelatory but a gem of an exhibit.

Visit: lyndhurst.org for gallery and mansion tour information.

Tiffany Studios Cypriote vase with serpent-form mounts — Photo: Edward Parrinello Photography
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