Published: March 2, 2010
When Art Nouveau swept the world in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, its first Canadian port of call was that most French of cities, Montreal. Paramount among the Art Nouveau objects in collections across the elegant city was a series of ecclesiastical leaded glass windows commissioned from Louis Comfort Tiffany for the 1866 American Presbyterian Church.
Museum research revealed that 17 Tiffany windows were installed between 1897 and 1902 and an 18th example was added around 1904 or 1905. Two other ecclesiastical windows of lesser quality, not documented as Tiffany works, were added in 1906 and 1918. In 1934, the church merged with the Erskine Church and the windows were moved to the new location of the Erskine and American Church.
Over the years, however, the windows achieved near invisibility in Montreal. When church membership dwindled, its next door neighbor on Sherbrooke Street, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA), acquired the sanctuary in 2006, giving the windows a new lease on life.
Museum staff was captivated by the design and color of the windows and undertook extensive research and restoration on them. The renewed attention to Tiffany’s ecclesiastical commissions and the techniques employed in executing the windows prompted the museum to take a deeper look at the American artist whose achievements were so extraordinary and whose work was so compelling.
Nathalie Bondil, director and chief curator at MMFA, explains in her foreword in the exhibition catalog, “As the leaded-glass windows had to be restored, protected and studied, I decided to use the opportunity to feature these windows in an exhibition before undertaking their reinstallation. For it is only upon seeing a Tiffany leaded-glass window up close that one can fully appreciate the innovative character of this artist.”
The result is the new exhibit, “Tiffany Glass: A Passion for Color,” on view at MMFA through May 2. The exhibit was organized by the MMFA in collaboration with the Musee du Luxembourg in Paris, where it was most recently on view, and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.
The approximately 180 objects on view are drawn from disparate public and private collections around the world, a remarkable feat given the fragility of the objects and illustrative of the far-flung interest in Tiffany. The exhibition includes loans of windows and objects from some of those same institutions †as well as the Musee d’Orsay, the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, the Hermitage in St Petersburg, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and others.
The exhibition explores Tiffany’s early career and his influences, along with his work as the premier American interior decorator of the 1880s and early 1890s. The son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co., Lewis Comfort Tiffany traveled widely and frequently, visiting Europe for the first time in 1865. Later, a year in Paris, between 1868 and 1869, studying painting in the studio of Leon-Charles Bailly served as an introduction to the European art of glass. He was fascinated by the medieval glass windows he discovered. Subsequent travel in North Africa opened his eyes to even richer color and ornamentation.
Back home and working as a decorator, Tiffany furnished some of America’s great interiors, including the White House, the residences of the Vanderbilts and Havemeyers, supplying his clients with leaded glass windows, lamps, fireplace tiles, metal and glass railings and mosaics, lavish drapery velvets and furniture, even jewelry. His windows and mosaics were much in demand in the decoration of mausoleums.
Tiffany was among the first to incorporate glass elements into his interiors, and their immediate popularity led him to further experimentation and even more fanciful creations.
The vogue for leaded glass windows in houses and public buildings in around the world during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries dovetailed with Tiffany’s experimentation. His ecclesiastical and other windows, while not widely available owing to their cost, were simply nonpareil.
Tiffany mastered the art of drawing in glass and incorporated elements of Arts and Crafts, Symbolism, Art Nouveau and the other international artistic movements of the era. His unique blend of brilliant color and design, his exotic subjects and lavish treatments and his technological advances in glass brought him international recognition as a great, if not the greatest, glassmaker of his time.
The exhibition examines his oeuvre with respect to his considerable technological innovations. He took excellent advantage of the newly emergent electric light bulb, which illuminated his glass creations night and day, only heightening their desirability.
At the same time that Tiffany’s studios were producing windows, his experimentation with blowing and stretching molten glass continued. He developed Favrile glass, a handmade glass that provided a greater depth and variability of color and organic form than any seen previously. Favrile glass was the first American glass to be copied by artists in Austria and Bohemia. Tiffany used it in windows, lamps and vases, and other decorative objects, all of which were based on forms drawn from life and nature.
Another of Tiffany’s innovations was the introduction of the art of layering glass and the use of opalescent glass in many works. He played with glass, hammering and mottling it, causing it to flow and drape like fabric catching and refracting the light through its textural layers. He learned to comb the glass, creating a feathered surface used for angel’s wings and birds in his lamps and windows.
After visiting Tiffany’s New York studio in 1894, Paris dealer Siegfried Bing became the exclusive European distributor of Tiffany glassworks. Bing commissioned windows from Tiffany based on the designs of 11 contemporary French artists: Albert Besnard, Maurice Denis, Henri-Gabriel Ibels, P.A. Isaac, Paul Ranson, Kerr-Xavier Roussel, Paul Serusier, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre Bonnard, Felix Calloton and Edouard Vuillard.
They were shown in Paris at the 1895 Salon of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts. An example based on a Toulouse-Lautrec original design, “Au Nouveau Cirque, Papa Chrysanthememe,” is one of three of the 11 windows commissioned and the only one known to have survived.
Bing also sold Tiffany work to the leading French museums and to institutions and private collections in Hamburg, Berlin, Vienna and St Petersburg.
Capitalizing on the contemporary vogue for stained glass windows, Tiffany organized an entire department around them: landscape, figurative, floral and ornamental. He also organized an ecclesiastical department that produced altars, retables, ciboria and other religious articles.
The ecclesiastical windows on view, memorializing benefactors and leading parish lights of the Montreal church, will be reinstalled at MMFA when the traveling exhibition ends.
Four 136-inch double lancet Tiffany windows were installed in the American Presbyterian Church in 1897. One set of two, honoring George B. Wells, who was pastor of the church between 1871 and 1899, is the “Good Shepherd” window designed by Frederick Wilson, Tiffany’s premier artist. Wilson designed, or is the artist, to whom 12 windows on view are attributed.
The other window in the set, “Christ at Emmaus,” was designed by Edward Peck Sperry in memory of Benjamin Lyman. The lancet windows, all with a rich gothic canopy made of chipped and faceted chunks of glass, were installed in the east side of the building to take advantage of the morning sun.
All the windows were made with Tiffany’s opalescent glass and glass of varied textures. The artists also used drapery glass, which was made by flowing molten glass into folds and creases, streaked glass to simulate tree bark, confetti glass to simulate sunlight filtered through foliage.
Purely decorative windows by Tiffany are also on view. The “Magnolia,” a window designed by Agnes Northrop, chief designer of floral stained glass for Tiffany, was displayed in 1900 at the Exposition Universelle in Paris. It was purchased there for the Stieglitz Museum of Decorative and Applied Arts in St Petersburg and went ultimately to the Hermitage Museum, from which collection it is on loan.
A large and exotic mosaic panel, an abstract depiction of sulphur crested cockatoos, dates from about 1908. It is from the collection of the Haworth Art Gallery in Accrington, Lancashire, England, home to the largest public collection of Tiffany glass outside the United States. The collection of some 140 tiles, vases and mosaics was gathered by native son Joseph Briggs, who left Accrington in 1891 to seek his fortune in the United States and worked with Tiffany in many capacities. He sent his collection home in 1933.
The 256-page exhibition catalog, Tiffany Glass: A Passion for Colour , will be published in English and French and will be the first major French publication on Tiffany.
The museum is at 1379 Sherbrooke Street. For information, www.mmfa.qc.ca or 514-285-2000. The exhibit opens May 28 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts at 200 North Boulevard, Richmond, where it will remain on view until August 15. For information, www.vmfa.state.va.us or 804-340-1400.
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