CHICAGO, ILL. — Let it be said at the outset that the term “paperweight” is today something of a misnomer. Although they were originally functional — designed to hold down papers on a desk — nowadays paperweights rarely control any paper; rather they are considered examples of fine workmanship of glassmakers at their best and are appreciated for their aesthetic as opposed to utilitarian aspects.
In early Nineteenth Century Europe, an increasingly urban population and an expanding market of goods stimulated by the Industrial Revolution encouraged the manufacture of myriad new decorative novelties. Glass paperweights appeared in the early 1840s, gaining great popularity not only for their decorative appeal, but also their usefulness to the growing Victorian leisure-time interest in letter-writing. This fashionable upper- and middle-class activity assured the profitability of manufacturing paperweights, available for inexpensive purchase at stationery and novelty shops.
Decorative glass paperweights fit easily into the hand and are meant to be viewed from various directions through the dome, which acts like a lens to make the design change in appearance. A magnifying glass is often used to enhance appreciation of the fine detail of the work within.
Inevitably, paperweights became popular objects for collectors. Among the finest collections in the world is that assembled by Arthur Rubloff (1902–1983) and housed in the Art Institute of Chicago. A 2012 expansion of the gallery dedicated to this trove has more than doubled the number of weights on view to 800 and allowed for a more accessible and expansive display of the works.
Entering the gallery devoted to the Arthur Rubloff Collection of paperweights, one is surrounded by gorgeous, colorful glass masterpieces with mesmerizing patterns and designs produced from the early Nineteenth Century through the present. The collection showcases the quality of craftsmanship, technological innovation, intricacy and sheer beauty of this form of decorative art.
The man behind the trove was born in Duluth, Minn., and moved to Chicago at 17 to pursue a career in real estate. Rubloff’s firm was eventually responsible for numerous development projects in the Windy City, including the Magnificent Mile. A dedicated philanthropist, Rubloff gave generous support to University of Chicago Hospitals, Northwestern University Law School and the Art Institute.
Among the first generation of Twentieth Century collectors to rediscover paperweights as collectibles, Rubloff made his first purchase in the late 1940s and kept at it for the rest of his life. Among collectors who gathered under aegis of the Paperweight Collectors Association, founded in 1953, was author Truman Capote, who wrote that a paperweight was like “some fragment of a dream.” Rubloff eventually amassed a total of 1,472 paperweights, of which 1,200 were donated to the Art Institute in 1978. The Rubloff trove is recognized as one of three premier collections in the United States, along with the holdings of the Corning (N.Y.) Museum of Glass and the Bergstrom-Mahler Museum in Neenah, Wis.
The expanded gallery not only increases the number of objects on view from 341 to more than 800, but includes eight new wall cases and a new pedestal case to showcase the collection. For the first time, a dedicated space features a selection of outstanding contemporary paperweight designs, starting with a beautiful new piece by renowned paperweight artist Paul Stankard, “Honey Bee Swarm with Flowers and Fruit,” 2012. “This work represents my passion for integrating mysticism with botanical realism to give glass organic credibility,” says Stankard.
The origin of paperweights can be traced to Europe in the mid-1840s when Venetian glasshouses, using ancient glassworking techniques, created and exhibited the first signed and dated weights at the Vienna Industrial Exposition in 1845. Bohemian glassworkers soon improved upon the revived Venetian version of the ancient millefiore technique — containing within paperweights thin cross-sections of cylindrical composite canes made from colored rods and usually resembling little flowers.
During the classic period of paperweight making, 1845–1860, the great French glass factories of Baccarat, Saint-Louis and Clichy perfected the paperweight type and set standards for the world. They explored various techniques and introduced and perfected new motifs such as flame-worked flora and fauna.
The Rubloff collection documents the extraordinary craftsmanship that created the beautiful French weights of this period. Among the highlights: paperweights from the venerable Saint-Louis factory (founded in 1586), dated around 1848–1855, including a pedestal weight featuring intricate, colorful concentric circles, and an upright paperweight focused on a color-filled floral bouquet. One eye-popping weight displays a large mauve dahlia head with four roses of striated petals and an orange and blue center, five green leaves, all set in clear glass on a large star-cut base. It is easy to see why the Saint-Louis factory was a leader in the field.
Examples on view from the Clichy glassworks are equally dazzling. Particularly notable are a triple quatrefoil millefiori paperweight with upset muslin ground, and a spectacularly swirling weight with a cross motif.
Standouts among Baccarat paperweights include a high-domed shape with a star-cut base and the top entirely covered with blue, pink and yellow flowers on a gold ground, and a “Salmon-Colored Bouquet” paperweight featuring leaves and floral petals.
Another French-made highlight is a blown glass “Lily of the Valley” paperweight, factory unknown, containing an exquisite grouping of diverse flowers, dated 1845–1855.
In 1851, Prince Albert of England sponsored the Great Exposition of the Industry of All Nations, at the Crystal Palace in London, to showcase international artistic innovations, including paperweights. The public celebrations of the union of science and art in weights at the Crystal Palace and subsequent world fairs brought paperweights to the attention of the world. Subsequently, paperweights were produced in many countries, but French designs were the most widely varied and finely executed.
Glass artisans from Europe helped expand the emerging American glassmaking industry, ushering in the American Classic Period of paperweight making, 1852 through the 1870s, long after the popularity of weights had declined in Europe. During this time, factories of the New England and Mount Washington glass companies of Massachusetts and the Whitehall-Tatum Company of New Jersey produced some paperweights that equaled the best of the French.
Early in the Twentieth Century, Louis Comfort Tiffany created paperweight vases using traditional methods to make pieces that were a departure from the traditional paperweight form. Although Tiffany’s vases were utilitarian, their artistic quality was considered equally important.
Throughout the last century artists challenged themselves to break away from conventional paperweight designs and to use techniques in new ways. A sustained revival of interest in quality paperweights in the middle of the Twentieth Century led to a rise in popularity of this art form that continues to this day.
The Studio Glass movement, beginning in the United States in the early 1960s, moved glassmaking from factories to studios, and artists, including paperweight and marble makers, began working with glass for purely artistic, rather than functional, ends.
In recent decades traditional ideas of what a paperweight is have been set aside, as many artists broke new ground with myriad varieties of paperweight-related objects, such as orbs, marbles, vessels and small-scale sculptures. While drawing their inspiration from early paperweight makers, they have examined their techniques and expanded on them. Their unique perspective on paperweights, which has resulted in fine pieces rivaling anything produced in the classic periods, is documented in the Rubloff collection.
Stankard, a leading contemporary artist, is a flameworker, focusing on miniaturizing and magnifying aspects of nature. Combining mastery of Nineteenth Century floral paperweight techniques with his knowledge of botany, he creates accurate reproductions from the world of plants. Stankard’s stated objective is to continue pride of craftsmanship with new uses of traditional weight-making techniques.
Collecting paperweights has grown in popularity over the years. Some collectors start out specializing in certain types, but often end up, like Rubloff, with an eclectic mix.
Among the leading collectibles are millefiori — Italian for a thousand flowers — involving a technique comprising thin cross-sections of cylindrical composite cranes made from colored rods and usually resembling small flowers. Among variations are scattered, patterned, close concentric or carpet ground.
Lampwork paperweights feature flowers, fruit, butterflies or animals made by shaping bits of colored glass with a gas burner or torch and assembling them into attractive compositions that are incorporated into the dome. This technique, which often results in stylized, but highly realistic forms, is favored by studio artists.
Sulfide paperweights, often produced to commemorate some person or event, have an encased portrait plaque or cameolike medallion made from a special ceramic that reproduces very fine detail.
Bohemian weights, particularly popular in the Victorian era, often took the form of large engraved or cut hollow spheres of ruby glass.
Swirl paperweights have opaque rods of two or three colors radiating like a pinwheel from a central millefiori floret. A variation, the Crown weight, has twisted ribbons, alternatively colored and lacy white, which radiate from the crown from a central millefiori floret. First devised in the Saint-Louis factory, Crown weights remain popular today.
Miniature paperweights have diameters of less than 2 inches or so, and magnums have diameters greater than around 3¼ inches.
California-style paperweights are created by “painting” the surface of the dome with colored molten glass (torchwork) and manipulating it with picks or other tools. They may also be sprayed while hot with various metallic salts to achieve an iridescent look.
There are numerous paperweight collectors worldwide. Famous collectors include Capote, Colette, Oscar Wilde, Empress Eugenie (Napoleon III’s wife), Empress Carlotta (wife of Maximilian I of Mexico), and King Farouk of Egypt.
As paperweights continue to evolve, some makers are holding fast to tradition and working to master classical design and technique. Others are taking new risks with new ideas and fresh techniques in what has become a large and varied field of artistic endeavor.
The Art Institute of Chicago is at 111 South Michigan Avenue. For information, 312-443-3600 or www.artic.edu.