Tiffany Leads the Art Nouveau Movement in the United States

Louis Comfort Tiffany’s craftsmanship and design in glassmaking and then in jewelry making influenced artistic trends in the United States and abroad.

Summary of Event

Louis Comfort Tiffany.

(Library of Congress)

The demise of Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in 1900 and its succession by Tiffany Studios was a logical development in the career of one of the most gifted and influential designers in the United States. Through his new company, Louis Comfort Tiffany hoped to realize his lifelong ambitions: to promote glass as an accepted, even ideal, artistic medium and to become a trendsetter in American artistic development. Art Nouveau
Tiffany Studios
Art movements;Art Nouveau
[kw]Tiffany Leads the Art Nouveau Movement in the United States (1902-1913)
[kw]Art Nouveau Movement in the United States, Tiffany Leads the (1902-1913)
[kw]United States, Tiffany Leads the Art Nouveau Movement in the (1902-1913)
Art Nouveau
Tiffany Studios
Art movements;Art Nouveau
[g]United States;1902-1913: Tiffany Leads the Art Nouveau Movement in the United States[00370]
[c]Fashion and design;1902-1913: Tiffany Leads the Art Nouveau Movement in the United States[00370]
[c]Arts;1902-1913: Tiffany Leads the Art Nouveau Movement in the United States[00370]
Tiffany, Louis Comfort
Tiffany, Charles Louis
Bing, Samuel
La Farge, John
Nash, Arthur J.

Headstrong and volatile, Tiffany at the age of eighteen informed his father, Charles Louis Tiffany, founder of the famous jewelry concern Tiffany & Co., that he wanted neither to go to college nor to secure a position in the family firm. He wanted to be an artist. Tiffany began training in the studio of George Inness, Inness, George the famous American painter, but longed to expand his horizons. At Inness’s studio, Tiffany was introduced to leading artists of the day as well as to their ideas and philosophies, some of which made lasting impressions. The most influential of these was the Arts and Crafts movement associated with William Morris Morris, William of England. It stressed honesty of craftsmanship and the importance of designs from nature. It made no distinction between artist and craftsman. Morris had also revived and improved upon the ancient art of working with stained glass as an artistic medium. Tiffany adopted so many of Morris’s ideas that he became known as the William Morris of America.

Trips to France and Morocco profoundly changed Tiffany’s life. He was overwhelmed by the richness of color of the stained-glass windows of the great French cathedrals and equally impressed by the earthier colors and more exotic designs found in Morocco. His experiences confirmed his belief in the primacy of color in art, and thereafter he considered himself as much a colorist as an artist.

For a time, Tiffany worked as a conventional artist, but he found the work too limited. Inspired by examples of the Arts and Crafts movement Arts and Crafts movement
Design movements;Arts and Crafts he saw at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, Tiffany decided that interior decorating would offer a wider scope for his talents. He formed Louis C. Tiffany and Associated Artists, where he worked with other artists knowledgeable in porcelains, textiles, and exotic carvings. Tiffany added his growing interest in and knowledge of the decorative possibilities of glass. Glass;artistic medium He recognized the potential of glass as a superb artistic medium, offering a forum for brilliant colors, and he had begun experimenting with glass as early as 1870. Creating more effective forms of glass became his life’s work and the means through which he achieved fame.

Tiffany soon became America’s best-known interior decorator. He designed interiors for some of the country’s most famous homes, including the White House, for which he created an enormous decorative glass screen. The screen, which was greatly admired, was fashioned of “opalescent,” a new kind of glass Tiffany had developed in cooperation with artist John La Farge.

Tiffany became increasingly involved in his research in glass, and in 1885 he abandoned interior decorating and formed the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. He now could devote himself full-time to perfecting and utilizing glass as an artistic medium. Tiffany’s new company was involved primarily in creating stained-glass windows. The cutting process, however, resulted in many leftover pieces of colorful and expensive glass. Seeking ways to utilize them, Tiffany began piecing the fragments together with lead strips in graceful, often stylized and free-form designs to form various objects, the most notable of which were lamp shades. Through his lamp shades, Tiffany became famous as one of the first industrial designers. Industrial design;Tiffany lamp shades

Seeking further to concentrate his work on glass, Tiffany established his own furnaces in Corona, New York, in 1893. Along with skilled glassblowers, notably Arthur J. Nash, Tiffany developed a further refinement of opalescent glass. The new glass, called Favrile, was introduced to the public in 1896.

Tiffany believed that he could realize his objective of becoming an arbiter of taste, bringing color and good design to the masses. Using his glass and the objects fashioned from it as a focal point, and building on his training as an artist, craftsman, and interior designer, Tiffany founded Tiffany Studios in 1900. The studios offered complete design services, ranging from interiors to architecture, from garden design to textiles and jewelry. Craft workers in the studios produced most of the articles, and what they could not make was commissioned. Everything, however, conformed to Tiffany’s ideas concerning good taste.

When his father died in 1902, Tiffany gained control of Tiffany & Co. and merged Tiffany Studios into it. Tiffany & Co. already had a client list that included millionaires and celebrities, American presidents and European royalty. Although best known for jewelry, Tiffany & Co. also dealt in porcelain, glassware, and other accessories. With the merger, Tiffany solidified his place in the forefront of good taste and high-quality craftsmanship.

Tiffany’s fame also spread abroad, in large part through the efforts of Samuel Bing, the Parisian art dealer credited with founding the Art Nouveau movement. Embracing radical new designs and the extravagant use of light and color, Art Nouveau was in many ways the precursor of modern art. Tiffany became the leader of the Art Nouveau movement in the United States.

In 1913, Tiffany was at the height of his career. Few American artists had earned as much admiration, and few were as well known in Europe. That year was also the year of the famous Armory Show Armory Show (1913) in New York City, which exposed Americans to radical new movements in art such as Fauvism, post-Impressionism, and German expressionism. Many Americans were shocked or even outraged by what they saw, and Tiffany was among them. He railed against the modernists. The master who had done so much to change taste had lost touch; the world of art in which he had been a moving force had now passed him by. Tiffany clung to his theories, but his lush, extravagant designs could not survive World War I.

Tiffany outlived two wives who played comparatively small roles in his professional life. His daughters married and left home, and his only son chose a career with the family’s jewelry firm. Louis Comfort Tiffany died in the bleak Depression year of 1933. It was left to later generations to appraise his true genius.


Louis Comfort Tiffany’s death on January 17, 1933, was scarcely noticed. Even Art News had little to say about his creative life other than that at one time his designs aroused considerable controversy. The post-World War I generation forgot Tiffany; it was the post-World War II generation that rediscovered him and recognized the influential role he had played in the development of twentieth century art and design. In the decades after the 1960’s, a growing field of literature was devoted to Tiffany and his work. The influence Tiffany exerted through his studios can be divided into four general areas: his influence on modern art, his perfection and promotion of glass as an artistic medium, his creation of new and dramatic forms of glass, and his role as a pioneer in industrial design.

The Art Nouveau movement roughly coincided with the period of the greatest productivity and influence of Tiffany Studios. The movement was largely ignored by the post-World War I generation, but later art historians saw its radical departure from late Victorian formalism, its free forms and sensuous lines, and its lavish use of light and color as major influences in the development of modern art.

Aside from the radical nature of many of his designs, what Tiffany had in common with modern art movements such as Fauvism, post-Impressionism, and abstract expressionism was his emphasis on and treatment of color. It was precisely because of their unorthodox use and exaltation of pure color that the Fauves, or “wild ones,” were so named. Among the more famous Fauve artists were Henri Matisse, Georges Braque, and Georges Rouault.

The post-Impressionists also exalted color but arrived at it in a manner similar to that used by Tiffany in glass. Georges Seurat, a leading post-Impressionist artist, achieved his remarkable gradations of color through a process called pointillism, in which dots of color are painted in juxtaposition and left to the eye to blend. Tiffany used the same process in both his opalescent and his Favrile glass. Varying colors in the forms of particles or strands within the glass itself produced an array of iridescent colors depending on the light. Tiffany used the same technique in his painting with mosaics, in which he arranged tesserae (bits of glass or tile) often nearly as small as Seurat’s dots in ways that achieved astonishing color effects.

Tiffany’s influence on abstract expressionism in the United States was more direct. Artists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell saw Tiffany as an early exponent of pure form and color in art expressed in glass.

Tiffany’s greatest contributions to the world of design and art were his perfection, utilization, and promotion of glass as an artistic medium. He had no desire to imitate the techniques of the medieval masters of stained glass; rather, he wanted to improve on them. Before Tiffany, virtually no important artist used stained glass as a medium. Today it is associated with a growing list of important artists, including Henri Matisse, Georges Rouault, and Marc Chagall.

Although Tiffany worked on many forms of glass and patented several, the two for which he is best known and that found their fullest utilization in the products of Tiffany Studios are opalescent and Favrile. Opalescent glass was unique in that it contained color and design within it. Both effects were derived from opaque particles floating in suspension that created designs in addition to modifying the degree of transparency or opacity. The composition at the same time created color and scattered light in a unique, even mysterious, manner. Tiffany and La Farge also succeeded in achieving the iridescent quality seen in buried ancient glass.

Tiffany’s greatest triumph was Favrile glass, Favrile glass
Glass;Favrile with its incredible beauty and versatility. Its perfection came only after Tiffany had spent many hours in the study of glass chemistry and endless experimentation. Tiffany’s skilled glassblowers, by fusing molten glass of various colors, exposing it to fumes produced through the vaporization of different metals, and skillfully manipulating the molten masses, including variations in the surface areas, produced an astonishingly wide range of colors and effects, from flesh tones to foliage, flowers, and intricate folds of garments. The designs, the colors, and even the textures of Tiffany’s subjects were in the glass itself.

The establishment of Tiffany Studios must be seen as an important part of the early twentieth century’s pioneering work in industrial design. Simply stated, industrial design is the creation of handsome and useful objects that can be mass-produced at low cost for the general public. Although always a careful craftsman, Tiffany saw himself as an educator of the people, and he desired to bring beauty to the masses. He saw himself as among the first to design for an industrial age. The best examples of industrial design in his work are his lamp shades. Other practical items his studios produced included trays, tableware, inkstands, jardinieres, clocks, photograph frames, pincushions, goblets, plates, and plaques. For a time, no well-appointed American home would have been without objects of Tiffany design. Lamp shades were among the few items Tiffany mass-produced, and they were what caused Tiffany’s name to remain in the public mind when his more elaborate and exotic creations had been forgotten. It may be in the field of industrial design that Tiffany Studios had its greatest impact. Art Nouveau
Tiffany Studios
Art movements;Art Nouveau

Further Reading

  • Couldrey, Vivienne. The Art of Louis Comfort Tiffany. Secaucus, N.J.: Wellfleet Press, 1989. Lavishly illustrated and well-presented book spans Tiffany’s entire artistic career and includes illustrations of his early paintings. Links Tiffany to some of the movements in modern art, such as abstract expressionism. An interesting chapter debates whether his works are “kitsch or genius.”
  • Duncan, Alastair, Martin Eidelberg, and Neil Harris. Masterworks of Louis Comfort Tiffany. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1998. Comprehensive coverage of Tiffany’s works, including a series of his paintings and many of the objects he designed, by a decorative arts consultant and two historians. Splendid color photography. Includes a detailed chronology.
  • Heller, Steven, and Seymour Chwast. Graphic Style: From Victorian to Digital. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2001. Visual overview of graphic design style movements since the Victorian era. Includes more than seven hundred illustrations, time line, and selected bibliography.
  • Koch, Robert H. Louis C. Tiffany: The Collected Works of Robert Koch. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 2001. Koch can be considered a pioneer in the “Tiffany revival” of the 1960’s. A student of architecture, he arrived at Tiffany’s works through studying armories and grew fascinated with his subject. This volume contains Koch’s three well-respected books on Tiffany.
  • McKean, Hugh. The “Lost” Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany. 1980. Reprint. Atglen, Pa.: Schiffer, 2001. McKean was one of the artists invited to study at Tiffany’s home and tends to be somewhat adulatory. Includes a useful chapter on the hallmarks of Tiffany’s creations. Many photographs.
  • Potter, Norman, and Douglas Jackson. Tiffany Glassware. New York: Crown, 1988. One of the best introductions to Tiffany’s professional career available, even though the emphasis is on Tiffany’s glassware. Includes short biographies of various people who assisted or influenced Tiffany.
  • Tiffany, Louis Comfort. The Art Work of Louis C. Tiffany. 1914. Reprint. Poughkeepsie, N.Y.: Apollo, 1987. Reprint of a limited-edition book commissioned by Tiffany’s children in 1914. Covers the range of Tiffany’s creative work, including architecture and landscape, and offers interesting insight into how Tiffany was regarded at the time. Scarcely mentions the famous commercially produced lamp shades.

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