Tiffany Stained Glass
The American painter and designer, Louis Comfort Tiffany, essentially brought new high quality, high technology stained glass as an art form to the world in the late 1800s. Prior to that time, most of the stained glass used in windows came from Europe, and then only as seconds. European craftsmen kept the best quality glass for themselves. Tiffany manufactured new types of colored glass in over 5,000 colors!
In the late 1870s (sometimes referred to as The Gilded Age in the U.S.), European-made stained glass windows were highly prized by the American elite. Tiffany’s experimentation could not have happened at a better time. It also corresponded with the enormous religious fervor that was spreading across America, resulting in the construction of thousands of High Gothic churches. Deceased parishioners and clergy needed to be memorialized, and stained glass became the medium of choice. As the U.S. population spread westward on the North American continent, new municipal buildings, colleges, and libraries were built and needed to be decorated. Demand for windows made by Tiffany’s company skyrocketed, offering the proud owner social status and panache.
In this excerpt from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s website, we see that tiffany had much more to offer than the technology to colorize the glass:
“Tiffany also introduced new subject matter into his windows. While continuing to provide figural windows of saints and biblical themes for churches, he at times eliminated the figure altogether, conferring religious significance on the landscape and the natural world itself. Memorial windows in churches and mausoleums often featured verdant woodland themes, streams meandering through mountain valleys, or floral motifs. Tiffany’s lifelong preoccupation with gardens inspired some of the most naturalistic depictions of flowers and plants in all of stained glass.”
Today, collectors and admirers of this art form are willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars at auction for Tiffany windows, lamps, and other artwork. Hence the allure for thieves. What easier target than an old mausoleum’s Tiffany window in an abandoned cemetery?
Why do they call it ‘stained’ glass? Is it actually stained with a pigment? Well, that’s the process Tiffany perfected. Rudimentary experimentation with color began in the Middle Ages, but much of the early ‘stained’ glass was just clear glass painted on with shades of translucent paint. Tiffany evolved the process of coloring glass in the late 1800s to the point where he was able to make thousands of different colors. Metallic oxides are mixed in with the molten glass to color it-copper was found to create a greenish hue, nickel for purple, manganese for violet. Use of the glass in creating stained glass windows was advanced by the Arts and Crafts movement and its leader William Morris in England.
In 1879, Tiffany’s contemporary, John LaFarge, invented opalescent glass, the medium for which Tiffany is most noted. Opalescent glass is glass that is not transparent–you can’t see through it because of its dense color. Look at the Shell Glass image as an example (this is from a mausoleum in Philadelphia). Tiffany popularized a new art form based on opalescent glass to international applause and success, much as the Japanese popularized consumer electronics based on the (American-designed) transistor! As the great philosopher David Bowie said, “It’s not who did it first, its who did it second.”