Bright, iridescent glass is the hallmark of Louis Comfort Tiffany and the firm he founded, Tiffany Studios. Its stained-glass masterpieces, Art Nouveau lamps and favrile glass pottery, have attracted legions of fans for more than a century. Less well known is the fact that Tiffany pursued an interest in pottery design. Tiffany Studios pottery might even be more desirable today than it was when it was introduced at the height of the Art Nouveau movement.
The leaders of Art Nouveau wanted to remove the stuffy, antiquated boundaries between decorative and applied art. In a nutshell, the former was to be admired, while the purpose of the latter was to be functional. Artists of the era insisted that practical everyday object could be just as fashionable as a strictly decorative piece. Louis Comfort Tiffany did with glass and pottery what his fellow Art Nouveau trendsetters did in their respective fields – Aubrey Beardsley with graphics, Gustav Klimt with painting, Victor Horta with architecture and Louis Majorelle with furniture.
Tiffany Studios pottery production lasted from roughly 1900 to about 1920. Louis Comfort Tiffany might have been inspired by the American art pottery movement that emerged from the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition held in Philadelphia, or perhaps he visited the French-inspired pottery exhibits at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900 and was moved by what he saw. Whatever the source of the inspiration, Tiffany exhibited his firm’s earliest works of pottery at the Louisiana Purchase International Exposition in Paris in 1904 and at the Salon of the Societe des Artistes Francais in Paris in 1905.
Just like Tiffany Studios’ famous works in glass, the firm’s pottery designs were based on flowers, plants and the beauty of the natural world. Artichokes, water lilies, vines, celery, ferns, crocuses, seedpods, blossoms and poppies were translated into the medium of ceramics with exceptional authenticity, resembling the real-world models in vivid, lifelike detail. Tiffany and his artisans achieved this feat by casting actual flowers and plants into the molds that formed the final design. This strict, obsessive attention to detail sets Tiffany Studios ceramics apart from others and wins the devotion of collectors. Note: the ceramic pottery should not be confused with Tiffany Studios favrile glass pottery, which is a separate category of wares.
Part of what makes the ceramics of Tiffany Studios valuable today are the fundamental practices that led to its downfall. Louis Comfort Tiffany always strived for perfection, and whenever he had to choose between maintaining quality and increasing profits, he chose quality every time. Tiffany and his artisans were always experimenting, always improving, always ensuring every detail was just right. While most of the firm’s pieces were cast in commercial molds, it is said that Tiffany himself always threw the first piece on the line – the one that would create the mold from which to shape all that followed.
Once Tiffany Studios pottery pieces were fired, talented artists painted them individually with colored glazes in matte, crystalline and iridescent finishes. These glazes became the preeminent design feature of the firm’s pottery line. “Glazes on pottery claimed much of his time in certain years,” says the authorized 1914 biography The Art Work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, written by Charles de Kay. Glazes defined his work, and his work was exacting, labor intensive and costly.
Unfortunately, Tiffany Studios pottery did not enjoy the same commercial success as its other offerings. Pottery production ceased around 1920, with only about 2,000 pieces created in total. While that was bad news for the firm, the relative rarity of Tiffany Studios pottery is good news for collectors.
The dwindling of Tiffany Studios pottery might have been a signal of dark times to come. In the 1920s, the Art Nouveau movement was eclipsed by the sleeker, more minimalist aesthetics of Art Deco and Bauhaus. Business declined, and too many pieces went unsold. Tiffany Studios declared bankruptcy and closed in 1932. Louis Comfort Tiffany suffered a personal bankruptcy and fell ill not long after closing the foundry, dying of pneumonia in 1933.
Tiffany was forgotten for a time by the art world, but the power and beauty of his decorative arts vision was rediscovered in the 1950s by curators and collectors. The artistic genius of Louis Comfort Tiffany and the artists he employed is proven at auction whenever original Tiffany Studios pottery captures the pre-sale high estimate, which it often does.
Budding collectors can learn more about Tiffany Studios pottery at the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art (www.morsemuseum.org) in Winter Park, Florida which “… houses the world’s most comprehensive collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany …” including his paintings, graphics and an ever-expanding display of decorative art.
Speaking on Tiffany and Tiffany Studios pottery, the Morse Museum’s site states it “… celebrates the design genius’s achievements with the ceramic medium that proved irresistible in his pursuit of beauty.” It is indeed a fitting epitaph for an artist whose works are beloved and immortal.