Published: August 28, 2007
As technology, trade and politics advanced in the mid-Nineteenth Century, exotic distant Middle and Far Eastern countries and their mysterious cultures became readily accessible to a new and emerging class of style-conscious Americans †via travel for the affluent, the imagination for everyone else. In homes and galleries alike, chic imported decorative objects from these far-off lands became all the rage. By the end of the Nineteenth Century, Orientalism, as the new style had been coined, was everywhere, its influence permeating popular culture.
A new vignette-style exhibition, “Orientalism †An Eye for the Exotic,” now open at The Morse Museum, is a lush installation of decorative objects that express Western fascination with the art and design of the Orient during the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries. It will remain on view through August 2008.
The vignettes at the Morse are a longstanding tradition established by the museum’s founder, the late Jeannette Genius McKean. An accomplished artist and interior designer, McKean fashioned small room-sized displays featuring creative, themed interiors in which objects from the collections were utilized as complementary decorative elements.
In 1942, prior to her marriage, Jeannette Genius founded The Morse on the campus of Rollins College, naming it the Morse Gallery of Art in honor of her grandfather, Chicago industrialist and Winter Park philanthropist Charles Hosmer Morse. Hugh F. McKean, then a Rollins art professor, was appointed as its director. Soon after that, in 1945, McKean and Genius were married.
Jeannette grew up in the gracious Kenwood section of Chicago in the Richardson Romanesque-style mansion her grandfather had built and later presented to her parents as a wedding gift. The home was richly detailed with stained glass windows and carved mahogany cabinetry, and her artistic mother, Elizabeth Morse Genius, bought American Impressionist paintings to hang on the walls. Many of the paintings from the original collection remain in the Morse’s troves of artworks today. As with many wealthy families of the period, the Geniuses also collected Tiffany glass.
With a rekindled fondness, 13 years after she founded the Morse Gallery, Jeannette McKean, remembering the satiny, iridescent glass in her family home and still regarding Tiffany’s work as exceptionally elegant, staged the exhibition “Works of Art by Louis Comfort Tiffany.” Having fallen from public favor decades earlier, the exhibition quickly became recognized as the first serious examination of Tiffany’s work to have been presented by a museum since the turn of the century.
Following the successes of the exhibition, the McKeans continued their collecting and scholarship. In 1957, when they received word from one of Tiffany’s twin daughters that his estate, Laurelton Hall, had burned, it was Jeannette McKean who made the decision to rescue the Tiffany “treasures,” then considered not worth saving. Her husband remembered her exact words at the scene of the devastation: “Let’s buy everything that is left and try to save it.” With that decision, she created the nucleus of a collection that would grow into the most comprehensive collection of the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany in the world.
Objects from the Morse’s significant and varied collection of Tiffany works play an integral role in the Orientalism vignette, but also prevalent are the works of British designer Christopher Dresser. It also pays tribute to this era by exploring the inspirations that the movement provided to firms such as Rookwood, Liberty, Royal Doulton and The Cincinnati Art Pottery.
The vignette, a red-walled room laden with carpets and pillows, showcases objects inspired by such exotic places as Japan, North Africa, Iran (Persia), Turkey, Algeria, India and China. Approximately two dozen objects make up the vignette, with the highlights including a six-shade Moorish electrolier by Tiffany Studios, a hand painted ceramic vase by Dresser and an Art Nouveau silver overlay decorated copper vase by silversmith and Tiffany & Co. designer Edward C. Moore.
The Western fascination with Oriental arts began when US Navy Commodore Matthew C. Perry initiated a process in 1854 that eventually opened Japan to global trading. As the stylish ceramics, silver and furniture flowed freely from Japanese ports, the Europeans became the first to respond and the “new” style was rapidly integrated into fashionable homes throughout London and Paris. It quickly became a cultural phenomenon and was coined “Japonism” by the French.
The earliest influences of Orientalism incorporated into Western styles can be traced back to the French Impressionist artists who began to infuse the fresh ideas gleaned from Japanese art into their works.
Popularity in America blossomed with the Centennial Exposition of 1876 in Philadelphia as the public was exposed to Japanese aesthetics, not only through the trendy Oriental interpretations of wares produced by their European counterparts, but also through Japanese displays of woodblock prints, textiles and ceramics that drew critical acclaim.
Standouts from the vignette include a sinuous Tell el-Amorna iridescent glass vase with green and ivory decoration, circa 1914, that is marked “L.C. Tiffany” and “Favrile” in script. Its stylistic roots lean toward Middle Eastern cultures.
A glazed Rookwood vase in a golden and oxblood-hued glazed body possesses strong Far East characteristics with dark vertical streaks cascading downward from the dark purple-hued glazed rim of the vessel. A pair of cobalt glazed bulbous vases molded with Oriental motif and highlighted in gold were made at the Matt Morgan Art Pottery in Cincinnati, circa 1883.
Other items produced by Tiffany include a squat bulbous pottery vase with a streaky deep brown ochre glaze over a lighter tan, also displaying strong Oriental characteristics, as does a sterling flask with a hammered body and repousse shrimp decoration.
A watercolor and gouache on paper by Louis Comfort Tiffany titled “Arab with Flute” is representative of his ties and appreciation of the Middle East. The circa 1870 work expresses minimalist characteristics. An Indonesian presence is strongly noted in a mahogany plant stand, late Nineteenth Century, produced by Liberty and Company, London.
The vignette is one of many exhibitions currently on display at The Morse. Among the most fascinating objects on view from the extensive Tiffany collection are the brilliantly colorful windows, mosaics, Byzantine-Romanesque architectural elements and furnishings of the chapel he created for the World’s Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. The chapel, once abandoned and almost lost, has been reassembled and is open to the general public for the first time in more than 100 years.
It was Tiffany’s work at the 1893 exposition, especially the chapel, that established him as a universally acknowledged member of the small international circle of leading artists/designers of the period †the only American in that group.
Other exhibitions on view at the Morse include “Dickens to Benton †Rare Books and Works on Paper from the Morse Collection” that remains open through October 14. This exhibition marks the first major showing of the group of books, prints and drawings that the McKeans so fondly assembled in their years of collecting. This collection spans almost 100 years †from an 1844 edition of Charles Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit to a 1941 lithograph by Thomas Hart Benton †and it embraces some of the finest European and American artists of this dynamic era of design reform and artistic experimentation.
After extensive conservation, the Morse has installed “Two Tiffany Windows” for an ongoing exhibition. The larger of the windows is a 6-foot-high panel, circa 1908, from the Richard Beatty Mellon house in Pittsburgh, Penn. A landscape, the window depicts a bridge over a still body of water, with water lilies, lotus and poplar trees rising against a distant horizon. The second is a smaller, precious work with a center medallion of molded leaf and floral tiles, circa 1890‱900, from the home of Tiffany’s friend and studio manager Joseph Briggs of New Jersey. The windows had previously been unavailable for viewing by the public.
Another ongoing exhibition is “Secrets of Tiffany Glassmaking.” Tiffany and his studio staff of chemists, designers and glass technicians possessed extraordinary ability in controlling and exploiting the properties of molten sand for the sake of art. This teaching exhibit explains the techniques employed at Tiffany Studios used to create leaded glass windows and lamps. The exhibit displays some of the various tools used in glassmaking, as well as window fragments, glass fragments, preliminary drawings and a model for a window.
“Quest of Beauty †Louis Comfort Tiffany’s Life and Art” will be opening at the Morse on November 6. A biographical study, the exhibition examines a lifetime’s work from the perspective of the facts of that life. Alongside some of the main known facts of Tiffany’s life, this exhibition presents some of the personal objects Tiffany owned, various records and awards, and many of his artistic creations. Objects will range from an 1865 sketch album from 17-year-old Tiffany’s first visit to Europe to silver and ivory cufflinks used by the artist. Also included will be a few works from Laurelton Hall.
The Morse Museum’s collection of objects from Laurelton Hall were exhibited in a landmark exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art that closed this past May.
The Morse Museum is at 445 North Park Avenue. For information, 407-645-5311 or www.morsemuseum.org .
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