Tiffany Takes Paris

A new exhibit of the U.S. designer’s decorative work is on display in Paris, featuring 14 works from the VMFA’s collection.

Parisians may be surprised to see their city celebrating the works of a famous American designer in an exhibit titled “Tiffany: Color and Light” at the Musée du Luxembourg. After all, Louis Comfort Tiffany, who lived from 1848 to 1933, was an American, based in New York, who spent virtually all of his career in this country. What’s more, most of his work remained in this country; in fact, there are more than 50 Tiffany windows in Virginia alone.

But there is a connection: Paris served as both a catalyst and capstone for Tiffany’s dazzling career. And, according to Barry Shifman, the curator of decorative arts at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Tiffany’s travels in Europe early in his life sparked his appreciation for glass.

Louis Tiffany was the artistically inclined son of Charles L. Tiffany, who founded the famous Fifth Avenue jewelry store and the brand associated with a very desirable pale blue box. Louis studied painting in Paris—and, after his student stint in Europe, he returned to America and started painting murals for interiors. He then moved toward interior decoration and finally the production of original and often splendid objects for those interiors, many of them made of glass. He did interior design work for author Mark Twain, sugar magnate Henry O. Havemeyer and tycoon Cornelius Vanderbilt. He also produced objects for President Chester Arthur’s White House.

By the turn of the century, his company, Tiffany Studios, was making leaded glass windows, hand-blown glass vessels, decorative objects such as mosaics and bronzes, vases and lamps—all individualistic works of art for the Gilded Age carriage trade. He took advantage of electric lighting to reveal the jewel-like hues and sparkle of leaded-glass lampshades. The popularity of his lamps, some with his magnolia and wisteria motifs, made Tiffany a household name. In 1900, Tiffany took his work to the Exposition Universelle in Paris, and he was proclaimed one of the stars of the show.

Now, a little more than a century later, Tiffany’s decorative genius is again on display in the City of Light. The Musée du Luxembourg exhibit, with about 170 Tiffany works, was conceived by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. After the Paris show ends in early January, it will move to Montreal and then come to Richmond. There, on May 29, 2010, it will help launch the expanded Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

The Paris-Richmond link is no accident: VMFA contributed 14 objects from its sizeable Tiffany collection to the Paris show, including the Cobweb lamp (1899-1900), made of leaded glass, glass mosaic tiles and bronze. “Tiffany combined a painter’s eye for color and composition with a devotion to glass as an artistic medium,” says VMFA Director Alex Nyerges, who traveled to Paris for the exhibit opening with a group including Deputy Director for Exhibitions Robin Nicholson.

The 1900 Paris Exhibition, where Tiffany showed, left a mark on that city nearly as indelible as that of Georges Eugène Haussmann, the civic planner who transformed the look and layout of the French capital in the late 19th century. Tiffany received several medals for such innovative designs as a Favrile (hand-crafted) glass punch bowl that’s now in the VMFA’s collection, and he was made a member of the Legion d’Honneur. By then, even Czar Nicholas II, in St. Petersburg, was collecting his work.

By the 1920s, artistic tastes were in flux—as they always are. The end of World War I marked the beginning of the end of the Art Nouveau era in Europe, what with the emergence of modernism. In America, Tiffany’s business went bankrupt in 1933, and no single archive for Tiffany Studios survives. Tiffany’s designs, though, are iconic—and it’s fitting for the master designer to receive a second wave of fame with the Musée du Luxembourg exhibit. Indeed, bright pink placards promoting it can be seen everywhere in Paris—on street corners, on the gates of the Jardins du Luxembourg, even the fronts of city buses.

According to Nicholson, The Richmond Tiffany exhibit will include additional windows from Montreal’s Erskine and American Church, built in 1894 and now part of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts complex, and from the Neustadt collection in New York. It will also include an additional 14 important Tiffany objects from the VMFA collection not on display in Paris—including the punch bowl from the 1900 Exposition. Forty-five more Tiffany works will also be on view in VMFA’s newly installed Lewis Decorative Arts Galleries, which comprises the finest Art Nouveau collection outside of France.

Richmond, Paris of the South? Why not—the ever-improving VMFA has done a lot to close the gap.

Read Neely Barnwell Dykshorn’s additional Paris dispatches on the Virginia Living blog, here and here.

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