Louis Comfort Tiffany's Life and Art

An Introduction to This Tiffany & Co. Visionary

Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933)
Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). Photo courtesy of the Morse Museum of American Art

Louis Comfort Tiffany's artistic pursuits as a young gentleman led him to sketch architecture and try his hand at painting as he traveled abroad. His artistic studies enriched an interest in color and light that would later be reflected in his decorative arts. But this acclaimed American artisan and designer actually made his mark as an interior decorator about the same time he began producing his famed leaded glass works.

Tiffany's Work

The mid-1870s found Tiffany spending time in Brooklyn glasshouses learning skills he would later employ to hone his craft. By the mid-1880s he had melded "the English Arts & Crafts notion of the united interior and the Aesthetic Movement's love of eclecticism into an encompassing vision of his own that presaged Art Nouveau," according to an article in The New York Times.

His business at the time, Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, produced a variety of objects ranging from his famed leaded-glass windows to all kinds of objects in enamel and carved wood, including furniture. He also designed and manufactured textiles and rugs to complete the interiors he created for his wealthy Gilded Age clientele including President Chester A. Arthur and the Havemeyers. He was also hired to decorate the first floor of Mark Twain's home with stencils and wallpapers.

In 1894, Tiffany registered the term Favrile taken from the Old English word for hand wrought: febrile. However, a number of glass Favrile objects were introduced at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 where he also debuted his remarkable Tiffany chapel, now on display at the Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park, Florida. The Chicago exhibit was visited by more than 1.4 million people in its day.

Tiffany also publicly displayed his first leaded-glass lamps at an 1899 exhibition of his works in London. The 1900 Exposition Universelle Internationale in Paris is generally regarded as a high point of Tiffany's career. He won a grand prix at the exposition, at which he unveiled his Four Seasons leaded-glass window, and was named a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, according to the Morse Museum.

Tiffany Studios is Born

Tiffany incorporated his growing company as Tiffany Studios in 1902, the same year his father died leaving him a fortune of about three million dollars. He also became art director at Tiffany & Co. at that time. The products of Tiffany Studios, always operated separately from Tiffany & Co. but marketed in the store and through their famous catalogs of the day, included art jewelry, enamels, and metalwork along with glass and ceramics with Favrile glazes. Several of these art pottery examples were unveiled at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase International Exposition.

In spite of the popularity of Tiffany's work with both his well-heeled patrons and the up and coming middle class of the day, Tiffany continually infused his personal wealth into his companies in order to keep them alive. This did not stop him from pursuing what he saw as one of his greatest accomplishments.

Tiffany's Laurelton Hall

In the early 1900s, Tiffany began construction of his estate on Long Island: Laurelton Hall. Had Laurelton Hall survived, according to an article in The New York Times, it would have been Tiffany's "ultimate work of art, a monument to a total vision." He completely designed and outfitted the residence with objects from his prior homes, items he had collected during his travels abroad, and many decorative pieces made by Tiffany Studios.

Tiffany established a foundation to maintain the estate in perpetuity as a museum and artist's colony. But the Tiffany Foundation, which still exists as a grant-making entity, fell on hard times after Tiffany's death in 1933 at the age of 85.

In 1945, the foundation auctioned off the contents of the house and the surrounding property was sold as well. When the abandoned house was gutted by fire in 1957, Hugh F. McKean and his wife Jeannette salvaged all they could from the rubble. They moved those remains to their home state of Florida where they had established a museum featuring a number of Tiffany pieces, which now includes decorative objects and the remains of Laurelton Hall. They took this visionary leap long before the revival of interest in Tiffany's work among art historians and collectors came about.

Today Louis Comfort Tiffany is revered for his genius. His works in all their forms are highly valued by collectors. There is no greater tribute to this life dedicated to the pursuit of artistry in color and light than that held under one roof in the Morse Museum of American Art.