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Entrepreneur of Elegance

The brilliance of museum's exhibit is crystal clear.

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Although born into privilege, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) knew how to get back to the basics. Nature was a springboard for this entrepreneur of elegance.

Surrounded by beauty and opulence as a child, he was captivated by intense color and the brilliant light emanating from it. He was a master at enriching the art of fine living with beautiful objects, usually based upon organic plant and floral forms, animals and sea life.

Tiffany became fascinated with glass but began his career by studying painting, intrigued by the motifs he saw in North Africa. Unlike his Romantic predecessor Delacroix, who painted exotic interiors, Tiffany preferred to paint the outdoor village scenes in Morocco and Algeria.

His father, Charles Lewis Tiffany, founded Tiffany & Co. in 1837. It was a luxury goods store on New York's Fifth Avenue, filled with such exquisite items that it was often referred to as a museum. SA"vres porcelain, Barye sculpture and magnificent gems and precious stones made a lifelong visual impact on the would-be painter, while he observed and absorbed the refraction of color and chemistry of light.

But his painting career was short-lived. A flair for interior design produced   unique furniture for important clients, which soon gave way to exploring the creative possibilities of glass. The evolution of Louis Comfort Tiffany from painter to master of an enormous workshop meticulously unfolds in the Virginia Museum of Fine Art's landmark exhibition, “Tiffany: Color and Light.” This is its last stop on a three-venue tour that opened in the fall at Paris' MusAce du Luxembourg. The exhibit reveals the mind of a genius (even if, out of the 170 different objects in the show, only three Tiffany paintings are on view).

This international collaboration features objects from as far as Russia's Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg (“Magnolia Window,” 1900). Highlighted are pristine lamps, vases shimmering with gold and jewellike color, exotic mosaics and dazzling, enormous church windows from Montreal as well as Richmond. Because of the museum's extensive holdings (with credit to the impeccable taste and generosity of Sydney and Frances Lewis), its 14 Tiffany objects are on loan to the dazzling exhibition.

One object that's not going anywhere is the museum's magnificent “Punch Bowl With Three Ladles” from 1900. “Our Tiffany punch bowl is regarded by many as the single most important work of art he ever created,” says the museum's director, Alex Nyerges. “It is also, easily, the most fragile and therefore can never travel to other museums.”

After study in New York and Paris, Tiffany formed Associated American Artists, and by 1902 Tiffany Studios came into being. He began by using jelly jars because of their impurities. Unable to convince glassmakers to refine their techniques, he started making his own opalescent glass, which became stained glass.

Most Tiffany glass is known as favrile, or handmade, iridescent art glass. The color is ingrained in the glass itself and especially was used to make stained glass windows. Favrile was Tiffany's answer to medieval and 16th-century Venetian glass. The term, however, now applies to all of his glass, enamel and pottery.

When his head filled up with more projects than one man could manage, he hired a team of 300 designers and artisans to implement his multitude of varied, creative ideas. Clara Driscoll was one of several woman designers at the studio. Her marvelous “Cobweb Lamp” (1899), owned by VMFA, is a real attention-getter. Other important artists such as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (1864-1901) contributed designs to be converted into glass. “Au Nouveau Cirque: Clownesse” is instantly recognizable as the work of the postimpressionist.

With his Paris dealer, Siegfried Bing, Tiffany launched the art nouveau movement, characterized by organic, highly stylized, flowing curvilinear forms. Objects became replete with swirling floral and plant motifs, illustrated by several silver items in the exhibit. Tiffany incorporated similar styles and techniques in designing his house, the 84-room Laurelton Hall in Long Island, N.Y.  S

“Tiffany: Color and Light” runs through Aug. 15 at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. The museum's own Tiffany and art nouveau collections are on view in its new wing. For information visit vmfa.org.  

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