The Wisteria lamp was designed by Clara Driscoll in 1901 and was available for sale by Christmas of that year. By February 1902, Driscoll wrote to her family in Ohio that fifteen Wisteria shades had been ordered: "all of which goes down to my credit, it being my design." One of the most iconic lamp designs produced by Tiffany Studios, the Wisteria model is deeply evocative of the lush, dripping vine that is famously cultivated in the present-day Kawachi Fuji Gardens in Kitakyushu, Japan, an ethereal tunnel of vines with cascading wisteria blossoms—a truly stunning and dream-like landscape.
The complex pattern of the lamp’s shade is comprised of nearly 2,000 pieces of glass that were individually selected and cut. The shade and base for both examples offered here are impressed with consecutive production numbers, reinforcing that both components originated together from the time of manufacture, and are perhaps the closest iteration of a pair to ever emerge on the market. The consecutive numbering indicates that the glass selection would likely be cut from the same sheets of glass, showing the close relationship between the production process and the artistic nature of the glass selection process.
These examples display qualities of early production through the design of their shade armatures and tree trunk bases. The subtle squared-off shoulder configuration of the shades, the out-turned flare to the top column of the tree-form base, as well as the locking pins on the top of the base column and early socket forms all indicate an early production model. The tree-form base harkens back to an archival photograph of Gibraltar Trees from the collection of Tiffany artist, Agnes Northrop, evidencing the photograph’s use as a potential design aid.
The glass selection articulates the wisteria blossoms in vigorously mottled opalescent cobalt glass, while the delicate trailing leaves are depicted in varying tones of yellows and greens. The background passages are thoughtfully composed in translucent jewel tones of cobalt, aqua and green, and the lower panicles are richly accented in tones of translucent amethyst. The thoughtful juxtaposition of opalescent and translucent glass achieves a sense of luminous, saturated color and strong visual movement. The overall effect is both lyrical and rhythmic, capturing the elegant curves and lushness of the wisteria vine.
In 1906, the price for a Wisteria lamp was $400.00, making it one of the most expensive lamps in Tiffany’s line. As revered as this luxury item was in the period, the Wisteria lamp is now widely recognized as an icon of American design and one of Tiffany Studios’ most accomplished masterworks in leaded glass. The fully saturated and artistic glass selection of the Wisterias presented in this collection distinguishes them as two of the finest examples ever to appear on the auction market.
The Wisteria model’s conventionalization of floral forms and its impressionistic color palette highlight the importance of Japanese aesthetics in Tiffany’s glass designs. The influence of Japanese prints on European and American artists in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries is widely recognized today as a stylistic turning point, especially for Modern decorative arts in the American Aesthetic style. Louis Comfort Tiffany’s exposure to Eastern cultures spanned the Middle East to Southeast Asia and he had direct contact with Japanese prints and decorative objects through the renowned gallery, L’Art Nouveau, owned by the prominent art dealer Siegfried Bing in Paris. Tiffany’s business relationship with Bing highlights the cross-national elements of the interior and decorative arts markets of the period, and shows that Tiffany’s cultural appropriation and innovation of Japonesque decorative motifs are inherently connected to European markets. In fact, by 1894 Tiffany was in contract with Bing to represent Tiffany Studios favrile blown glass vessels exclusively in Europe and in a special exhibition at the spring 1894 Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts
The wisteria vine figures prominently in traditional Japanese folk paintings known as Ötsu-e, souvenirs that were meant to provide good luck to new marriages. These paintings were also adapted to classical Kabuki dances in the mid- to late-nineteenth century, the most famous of which is titled The Wisteria Maiden
) and included the wisteria as a symbol of strength and virility that was later translated into a Western aesthetic.2
This popularity for Japonesque aesthetics would inform many of Tiffany’s lamp designs as well as his vision for his estate Laurelton Hall, where he famously incorporated a wisteria pergola into the landscape design of the grounds. The lushness of the wisteria in bloom is captured in a photograph by the artist Frances Benjamin Johnston from 1918, which depicts the glory of the Laurelton Hall pergola in its full abundance. Tiffany therefore held the wisteria vine and its abstracted motif in great esteem, and the contextual repetition of the pattern shows its popularity both in the artist’s landscape design, window panels, and in the extraordinary artistry of the Wisteria lamp model.
The rare, unprecedented emergence of these two Wisteria lamps of this artistic caliber demonstrates a unique glimpse into the nature-inspired vision of Tiffany’s design production and aesthetic.
1 Martin Eidelberg, “S. Bing and L.C. Tiffany: Entrepreneurs of Style,” Nineteenth Century Art Worldwide: A Journal of Nineteenth-Century Visual Culture, Vol. 4, Issue 2 Summer 2005, n.p.
2 Matthew Welch, Ōtsu-e: Japanese folk paintings from the Harriet and Edson Spencer Collection, 1994, p. 21