Tiffany’s interest in using nature as the foundation for his designs was supported by an extensive collection of photographs depicting various flora and fauna. Many of these photographs were in the collection of Agnes Northrop, an influential artist and designer at the firm who was well known for her artistic window designs depicting natural imagery. The archival photograph of peony blossoms from Northrop’s collection illustrates the expressive layering and texture of the flower’s petals in full bloom, which we see articulated in the spectacular, richly saturated glass of the present Peony lamp.
The essence of the peony blossom is artfully captured through the dynamic interplay of color and form. The vibrant orange and green background glass provides vivid contrast to the deep magenta and rose tones of the striated peony petals, highlighted with bright accents of aqua. The rare inclusion of textured drapery glass used in the flower petals demonstrates a three-dimensional naturalistic treatment of the floral pattern.
This sculptural quality extends to the extraordinary Crab base, which is executed in favrile glass blown into the reticulations of the bronze structure. The blown glass displays an unusually elegant celadon green, which is in visual harmony with the warm tones of the gracefully proportioned shade above. Three crabs encircled by an intricate network of braided rope ground the lamp’s overall composition and further emphasize the designer’s concern with form in the present lot. Due to the highly detailed treatment of each crab’s anatomy, it is likely that the form was cast from nature—a testament to the firm’s unrivaled skills across media and commitment to naturalistic representation.
The Peony lamp demonstrates the fusion of two of Tiffany’s most cherished themes: naturalism and Eastern influence. The peony flower held special resonance in Chinese culture during the fin-de-siècle
period when Tiffany Studios first started producing the model around 1905. Already by 1903, the peony blossom was declared the national emblem of China and was viewed as a signifier of strength of character in traditional Chinese and Japanese illustrations, in addition to its lauded medicinal qualities.
In 1827, the Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshiwas commissioned to create a series of woodblock prints to illustrate Shi Nai’an’s famous classical Chinese novel Shui Hu Zhuan (Water Margin)
where images of peonies in the natural landscape were featured very prominently.1
These ukiyo-e woodblock prints were widely circulated through the publication of this book both in Asia and Western Europe. While the shade is deeply evocative of this type of Japanese and Chinese floral print, Tiffany reinterprets these traditional themes of balance and harmony in design into an innovative, American aesthetic.
1 Yeanna Wu, "Full-Length Vernacular Fiction," in Victor Mair, ed., The Columbia History of Chinese Literature, 2001, pp. 627-629.