Discover the Little-Known Paintings of Louis Comfort Tiffany at Lyndhurst's Newest Exhibit
Louis Comfort Tiffany is best known for his stunning work in colored glass, from elaborate lampshades to towering windows depicting verdant pastoral scenes. The son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co., Louis Comfort Tiffany used his social connections, business acumen and inherited wealth to build his career in shaping the cultural landscape of the upper class throughout the late-19th and early-20th centuries. In addition to designing lamps and windows, Tiffany worked as an interior designer, catering to the Gilded Age elite. His founded his firm (called Louis C. Tiffany and Company, Associated Artists) in 1879, and quickly received several prestigious commissions. The firm’s work appeared at the Seventh Regiment Armory, the Mark Twain House and several rooms in the White House during the presidency of Chester A. Arthur.
But Tiffany saw himself first and foremost as a painter, and as Lyndhurst’s newest exhibition Becoming Tiffany: From Hudson Valley Painter to Gilded Age Tastemaker demonstrates, Tiffany’s paintings were progressive for their time.
“Many people don’t even know he was a painter, and most of his paintings are never exhibited—they’re usually kept in the storage rooms of museums,” says Howard Zar, executive director of Lyndhurst. “But for this exhibit, we were able to borrow 10 of his most important paintings.”
As an artist trained in the Hudson River School style of landscape painting, Tiffany’s talent is evident. However, what makes these paintings so significant is their subject matter. Look past the drab hues of the decrepit neighborhood shown in Old New York (1879), for example, and you’ll notice a pair of African American men potting and watering plants—a seemingly small detail, but one that was extremely rare at the time.
In Tiffany’s post-Civil War era, earnest, undistorted portraits of African Americans’ day-to-day lives in the North were simply unheard of. “There were a number of genre painters who painted scenes from the South, depicting African Americans who were clearly enslaved or impoverished. [White viewers] understood those, because those were a bit like travelogues,” Zar says. “But there was no real understanding of who these African Americans were after the war, who had been given freedom. People didn’t know what to make of [these paintings].”
Through his painting, Tiffany subtly portrayed the economic disenfranchisement of African Americans in the North following the Civil War. Although the war had brought about their emancipation, African Americans soon found that equality remained far out of grasp. Many lost the jobs they had assumed, which had been vacated by white men leaving to fight in the war. The abolitionist movement had thrived in the North, but many Northern residents showed little interest in integrating African Americans into society once abolition was achieved.
Pushing Off the Boat at Sea Bright, New Jersey (1887) captures this divide visually, depicting an African American man helping put a boat occupied by a white fisherman out to sea. It is hardly difficult to imagine the reversal of roles that had taken place, since many African Americans had served as fishermen during the war. Though one could interpret the image as a symbol of cooperation, the economic disenfranchisement it crystallizes is undeniable.
Becoming Tiffany also examines Helen Gould’s connection with Tiffany, establishing the daughter of railroad tycoon Jay Gould as one of the artist’s most dedicated customers. Based on sales catalogs and photographs of her Fifth Avenue mansion in the 1920s acquired from family descendants, curators could identify most of the Tiffany items Gould once owned, allowing them to recreate her former holdings for the exhibit. They found that many of Tiffany’s most important works and some of his finest commissions were a result of Helen Gould’s patronage.
“Before, everybody assumed that whatever we owned of Tiffany’s was purchased by Jay Gould,” says Zar. “Helen was oftentimes viewed as the dutiful daughter who didn’t change anything. But as we’re increasingly discovering, she actually lived at Lyndhurst much longer than her father, and there’s a lot of stuff that was hers, including what we own of Tiffany’s.”
The exhibit is now open to the public, and can be viewed through September 24.