While Tiffany windows, Tiffany lamps and Tiffany silver are widely known, few scholars and collectors have made a study of Tiffany ceramics within the context of the art pottery movement. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) was blessed with the creativity of a Renaissance master and considerable commercial success in many media. Yet, this very success in glass, silver and small objets d’art has overshadowed a unique body of around 2,000 pieces of artistic pottery made during the decade 1904-1914.
“Sculpting Nature: The Favrile Pottery of L.C. Tiffany,” the current exhibition at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art through January 9, 2005, displays approximately 100 ceramic examples from the institution’s permanent collection, including pieces newly acquired in preparation for this show. The Morse Museum has also extended through 2004 “The Illuminated Vision: Tiffany Lamps and Lighting from the Morse Collection,” which presents more than 40 lamps of every type, also drawn from the museum’s holdings.
The museum was founded in 1942 by Jeannette Genius McKean (1909-1989), who named the institution after her grandfather, Charles Hosmer Morse, a wealthy Chicago industrialist who retired to Winter Park. Her husband, Hugh F. McKean (1908-1995), was director of the museum for 53 years, as well as president of nearby Rollins College from 1951 to 1969. The couple enthusiastically partnered in collecting and together acquired the museum’s comprehensive collection of Tiffany objects as well as American art pottery and paintings from the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century.
Many collectors are familiar with Hugh McKean’s The “Lost” Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany, first published in 1980 and reprinted in 2002 by Schiffer Publishing as part of its Classic Reference Book series. As a young artist in 1930, McKean had studied at Tiffany’s Laurelton Hall estate in Oyster Bay, N.Y., and his book includes a wealth of material on architectural and interior design projects and a rare chapter on the pottery illustrated with examples from the Morse Museum collection.
In the 1914 authorized biography, The Art Work of Louis C. Tiffany, written by Charles de Kay, ceramic production had received only one enigmatic line: “Glazes on pottery claimed much of his time in certain years.” Dr Laurence J. Ruggiero, the Morse Museum’s present director, says, “Looking around at the literature, there is an attitude as if the pottery was not as successful as his glass, and that means it ought to be kept on a back shelf. In point of fact, I don’t think we know yet precisely how he thought of it. He kept 84 examples for his personal collection in Laurelton Hall, so it’s hard to believe he wasn’t very attached to it. He threw pots with his own hands from which certain molds were made. It’s plausible that he was extremely attached to it.”
The timeline of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s involvement with the medium of clay is sketchy. As a young designer, he had taught a class in unglazed pottery at the New York Society of Decorative Arts in 1878. McKean quotes Adelaide Robineau, editor of Keramic Studio, who wrote in the December 1900 issue: “…Mr Louis Tiffany is busy experimenting in pottery, which no doubt means that he will finally produce something as artistic as his Favrile glass. In an interview with the manager, our representative was told that as yet, ‘Mr Tiffany is in the experimental stage, but that he had been so charmed with the work of the artist potters at the Paris Exposition that he came home with the determination to try it, and that he would probably produce something in the lustre bodies.'”
Tiffany had been quietly experimenting with ceramics at his Corona factory on Long Island, perhaps as early as 1898. When he saw the artistic French pottery exhibition at the Paris Exposition Universelle in 1900, he arranged an exhibition at the Tiffany Studios showroom for 1901, the only time the gallery displayed works that were not his own. Finally, in 1904 at the Louisiana Purchase Exhibition in St Louis, he put on display three examples of pottery from his own workshop; sales began the following year.
Ruggiero points out, “This offering of pottery comes late in his career, don’t forget. He goes public with it in 1904, after he’s already had tremendous commercial success with the lamps and tremendous artistic success with the windows and mosaics. So it comes on the eve of World War I.” Tiffany used the name “favrile” – so closely associated with his art glass – for the pottery as well. The term is derived from an old English word for “handmade,” although the glass association has caused many collectors to use favrile as a synonym for iridescent.
Tiffany used a fine white semiporcelain clay that was fired at higher temperatures than earthenware. A master pot was designed and in some cases thrown by Tiffany, from which a mold was made for a limited number of castings for each shape. These were finished and in some cases decoratively carved by hand and then incised by Tiffany with the initials “LCT.” From his experiments, the artist first developed an antique ivory exterior glaze and a semigloss mossy green glaze. Other vases had a glazed interior surface to make the object waterproof and an exterior surface of unglazed white bisque that was subtly colored. In 1910, the firm began to cover or electroplate some pieces of pottery with a metal sheath of bronze, gold or silver.
In his daily encounters with the pottery at the Morse Museum, Ruggiero notes, “As with all of Tiffany, your perception of the work changes. You put it in a different place, a different light, it takes on a different color. As the setting changes, the pieces change. I feel a particular fondness for the celery stalk vase and we used it for the poster, but it’s impossible to really have a favorite – it depends on the day. Sometimes the abstract Oriental ones are just so stunning – the glazes are so subtle. You look at a photograph and you get one feeling, and you experience it directly and it’s very, very different.”
The “Sculpting Nature” exhibition, however, is divided into four broad sections based on the pottery’s form, rather than surface color or glaze. In these divisions, “naturalism” is by far the largest body of work, with smaller groups of pottery tied to “historicism,” “exoticism” and “abstraction.” McKean wrote, “Most of Tiffany’s pottery has the sturdy simplicity found in his personal work in all fields. His love of the modest and at the same time the lovely forms in nature is shown in his use of weeds, cattails, pussy-willows and grasses.”
Quite different from the floral focus of his stained glass windows and lighting, the emphasis in Tiffany’s naturalistic pottery is often on the humbler shapes of uncultivated plants and even weeds – cattails, mushrooms and seed pods. Edible vegetables, such as artichokes and celery, make an appearance. The vases that do depict garden flowers are frequently executed in low relief with muted glazes quite unlike the bright glory of his glass flowers.
Tiffany’s pottery production, at least as exemplified by this exhibition, does not have the type of unity of form or decorative signature that allows the viewer to label certain art pottery at a glance as Newcomb or Grueby or Dedham. Looking at what are essentially experiments within a single media by a design genius with notable success in many fields, collectors might conceivably love one LCT pot and not another. One person might be fascinated by the three-dimensionality of the milkweed and jack-in-the-pulpit vases, another by the glaze gradations on a purely abstract form.
Ruggiero concludes, “We hope the exhibition will add ceramics – in the public mind – to all the other things that Tiffany did well. Everyone knows about the lamps and the windows and the fancy goods and the blown glass. But the painting, the photography and the pottery are only recently making it to general consciousness. And the pottery is really quite wonderful and parallels the concerns of Tiffany in all the media with which he worked.”
The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is at 445 North Park Avenue. Public hours are 9:30 am to 4 pm, Tuesday-Saturday; 1 to 4 pm Sunday. For information, 407-645-5311 or www.morsemuseum.org.