Louis Comfort Tiffany. Color and light

Louis Comfort Tiffany. Couleurs et Lumières

Paris, Musée du Luxembourg, from 16 September 2009 to 17 January 2010
Montréal, Musée des Beaux-Arts, from 11 February to 2 May 2010
Richmond, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, from 29 May to 15 August 2010.

1. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933),
Eugène Feuillâtre and Edward Colonna
Vase “Peacock” , c. 1898-1899
Favrile Glass, gilt silver, enamels and ruby
New York, The Corning Museum of Glass
Phot : The Corning Museum of Glass

Although productions of French and Belgian Art Nouveau, as well as those from other Eastern European countries, had been highlighted in major exhibitions in France and Europe, Tiffany, this exceptional American designer, had been overlooked and, except for a few emblematic objects, it was almost impossible for the French public to appreciate his genius directly. The last exhibition devoted specifically to Tiffany in France was in fact his presentation at the Exposition universelle in 1900, after his participation in the Salon de la société nationale des Beaux-Arts in 1894 and 1895 and at the Salon de l’Art nouveau of Siegfried Bing in 1897. The awarding of the Légion d’Honneur had crowned this success in France but the event definitely dates back a long ways ! Now, under the auspices of the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Montréal, a true monographic and very beautiful exhibition, with the first French catalogue ever published on the subject, has finally been organized and the Musée du Luxembourg is the show’s first stop. Along with a team of international specialists under the supervision of Nathalie Bondil, director of the Museum in Montreal and Rosalind Pepall, general curator, the project includes some exceptional loans : besides the Musée d’Orsay, the Musée des arts décoratifs and the Petit Palais, such prestigious institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of New York, the Hermitage in Saint Petersburg, the Chrysler Museum and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts have enabled 160 pieces to be brought together here. Vases, lamps, objects, jewelry and stained glass as well as drawings, watercolours, photographs and mosaics all contribute to illustrating Tiffany’s production. The total number of works seems reasonable, reflecting a drastic selection in quality and the perfection of all the works on display are convincing confirmation of the artist’s absolute originality.

2. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933)
Magnolias, c. 1900
Glass, Lead
Saint-Petersburg, Ermitage museum
Photo : Yuri Molodkovets

3. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933)
Window of the Bella Apartment, c. 1880
Glass, Lead
New York, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Photo : The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Hubert Le Gall’s very beautiful scenography presents this magnificent oeuvre in three spacious rooms : subtle colours (sea green, gray, light brown), appropriate lighting, rugs with motifs recalling Art Nouveau and stained-glass effects, as well as bases with curved shapes for the lamps accompany the display cases along the walls and the stained-glass windows, are displayed in monumental installations and lighting. The eye is instantly captivated. The exhibition theoretically divided into six sections, but since Tiffany’s production barely covered a twenty-year period, these themes do not come across completely and, despite some early paintings and a display case devoted to artists who exhibited at Siegfried Bing’s at the same time as the American designer, such as Edouard Colonna and Eugène Feuillâtre (ill. 1), the visitor is not always aware of the chronological thread or perceptible breaks in the exhibition. These splendid objects are there to be admired on their own. Thus, after a small room presenting documents related to the artist’s life and the beginning of his production, another section evokes the transition from painting to glass art : Tiffany’s trips to Europe, his Orientalist works are shown but there are also ,right off, some masterpieces from different periods such as the andirons from 1894, the screen from 1882 and the Mermaid Stained-glass Window from 1899. The show then immediately continues on to stained-glass art in all its majesty focusing on particular techniques created by Tiffany, the limited use of enamel, the different glass textures and the complexity of different manners of working. Various projects and cartoons are shown and a very useful wall describes the stages in producing a stained-glass window, offering a rundown of the techniques, with sample fragments : ribbed, speckled, multi-coloured, draped, hammered, wavy, fractured, combed, cabochon glass etc…

4. Louis Comfort Tiffany
Angel of Resurrection, 1902
Glass, lead
Montreal, Musée des Beaux-Arts
Photo : Musée des Beaux-Arts
de Montreal

These explanations allow for an even better appreciation of the splendid stained-glass windows displayed in the exhibition. Besides the one after Toulouse-Lautrec, At the New Circus, Papa Chrysanthemum, from the series commissioned by Bing and lent by the Musée d’Orsay, there are also the Magnolias (ill. 2) from Saint Petersburg, the Stained-glass Window with Sea-anemone (Dallas Museum of Art) with complex techniques which recreate an undulating underwater vision with extraordinary effects or the rather precocious (1880) Window of the “Bella Apartment” (ill. 3) ; but the exhibition’s outstanding achievement is the presence of some of the windows, a large number, recently acquired by the Musée de Montréal which decorate the Erskine and American church (see news item of 17/4/08), not far from the Museum and which are to become a concert hall and also a section devoted to Canadian art, after refurbishment. These stained-glass windows, first designed between 1897 abd 1904 for the American Presbyterian church in Montreal and transported to their new site in 1938, form an exceptional ensemble of religious and decorative art by Tiffany. Of this group of eighteen, only part of it obviously is presented in Paris, but enough to take in its beauty (ill. 4). The hang and the proximity to visitors no doubt make their technique easier to admire than in their usual religious architectural space. The drawings are by excellent artists such as Frederick Wilson (1858-1932) who probably designed most of the pieces in this cycle. The technique is astounding : pleated, draped and ribbed glass, fragments inserted much like confetti in the glass paste, overlaying layers (as many as five !) of different glass to achieve certain effects with stunning results. To ornate the gothic canopies, the workers even cut out and faceted cabochons to recreate the glitter of stones. Contemplating these exceptional pieces and reading the explanations on the technique enables the visitor to approach the rest of Tiffany’s production with a new eye.

5. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933)
Vase, c. 1900
Favrile glass
New York, The Museum of Modern Art
Photo : The Museum of Modern Art/
Licensed by SCALA/Art Resource

6. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933)
Stamps box, c. 1905
Gilt bronze, mosaic glass, Collection Dr Gail Evra
Photo : Richard Goodbody

His vases (ill. 5), decorative objects (ill. 6) or furnishings, as well as the famous lamps, acquire a new meaning : their rather general reputation, a bit distorted by the horrible imitations in the 60’s and 70’s tended to form a screen between the truth of the object and the viewer’s eye. Here, in their original artistic and technical context once again, these creations embody the artist’s genius to the full. The admirable lamps Wisterias, Dragonflies, Peacock (ill. 7), Spider Web reveal the creator’s capacity for invention, the application to “utilitarian” objects of the most refined techniques, a sense of the overall decorative surroundings and thematic associations to the international Symbolist movement. Cases, vases, small objects all in beautiful display cases complete this exhibition which should not be missed. There is little likelihood that such remarkable pieces will show up again soon in Paris given the financial and logistical problems involved in bringing them together.

7. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933)
or Clara Driscoll
Lamp “Peacock” , before 1906
Favrile glass, lead, bronze
Private collection
Photo : All rights reserved

The splendid catalogue, the first work ever in French, presents scholarly essays, magnificent reproductions and places the works back into their context with accompanying photographs of the original décors. Tiffany’s links with Europe and Russia are also studied, the historical and technical aspects well covered : this is a remarkable publication and can already be considered an essential point of reference.

local/cache-vignettes/L114xH168/Couverture_Tiffany-d59c9.jpgCollective work under the supervision of Rosalind M. Pepall, Louis Comfort Tiffany, colours and light, Paris Skira Flammarion, Montréal, Musée des Beaux-Arts, 2009, 264 pages, 38€, ISBN : 9782081228306.

Visitor information : Musée du Luxembourg, 19 rue de Vaugirard, 75006 Paris. Tel : +33(0)1 42 34 25 95. Open every day, Monday and Friday from 1030 to 22:00 ; Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from 10:30 to 19:00 ; Saturday, Sunday and holidays from 9:30 to 20:00. Rates : 11€ (full price), 9€ (discount price).

To round out the exhibition, we would recommend that visitors go to the American Church of Paris, which holds Tiffany stained-glass windows, the only ones in France inside a religious building. The church is at 65, Quai d’Orsay in Paris and is open Monday through Saturday from 9:00 to 12:00 and from 13:00 to 22:30, Sundays from 15:00 to 19:30.

Version française

Jean-David Jumeau-Lafond, mercredi 14 octobre 2009

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