Andrew Carnegie’s patronage of interior decorations and objects produced by Tiffany Studios is the foundational context for this extraordinary “Dragonfly” Table Lamp. The Scottish-American industrialist is famous for ushering in a modern era of production and expansion in the steel industry of the United States, however his interest in technology and art was also of paramount importance to his cultural and philanthropic endeavors. A shared love and fascination with nature accounted for Carnegie’s interest in the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, especially in the realm of domestic interiors. His summer residence at Skibo Castle in the Scottish highlands as well as the historic residence at 2 East 91st Street in New York City (now the Cooper-Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum) were both characterized by abundant gardens, conservatories, and myriad floral arrangements that graced the interiors. Carnegie was fascinated by botany, an intellectual pursuit that was especially displayed in the context of his home with collections of intriguing, exotic plants and blossoming species that enchanted his guests. This interest was strongly paralleled in the lush gardens and collections of Louis Comfort Tiffany at his Laurelton Hall estate.
In 1913, Carnegie commissioned a major work from the Tiffany Studios Ecclesiastical Department for a memorial stained glass window depicting a magnificent scene of natural beauty, originally intended for installation within the abbey church in his home town of Dunfermline, Scotland. Carnegie’s on-going patronage of Tiffany Studios was not limited to the ecclesiastical context, however, as period photographs and inventories of the Carnegie residence in New York City depict myriad designs produced by Tiffany in an array of popular models ranging across Turtle-Back tiled chandeliers, geometric as well as intricate floral leaded glass table lamps, Favrile blown glass objects, and most notably, the present offering of this extraordinary “Dragonfly” Table Lamp, which graced the Carnegie's Picture Gallery as seen in a period photograph of the room interior. The Carnegie Mansion on 91st Street was completed in 1903, which suggests that Andrew and Louise Carnegie commissioned these works from Tiffany Studios around this same time.
The naturalistic glass selection in this shade speaks to a painterly sense of tone and texture, with rich coloration that suggests dragonflies fluttering before a saturated sunset sky of golden yellow hues and fiery orange tones below. The texture of the rippled background glass heightens its reference to aquatic settings associated with dragonflies, and provides a sense of fluid movement in the design. Cabochon jewels display a range of deep colors in vibrant red, orange, gold, and green that complement the warm coloration of the background as well as the tonal variation in the dragonflies themselves. The dragonflies around the circumference of the shade display a wide range of colors in the wings and spines in deep purple, greens, and warmer tones, which indicate that the glass selector in the design process was looking directly at natural sources as well as period studies of entomology that showed variations in anatomical iridescence. This suggestion of tonal variation is only heightened when the shade is illuminated—a combination of art and technology that was beloved by Carnegie.
Carnegie shared with Tiffany a passion for incorporating art into everyday life and objects, especially through an enthusiasm for marrying artistic representations of the natural world with technical innovations. This conceptual relationship is expressed profoundly in the present offering, a “Dragonfly” lamp that embodies the dual passion of art and technology through its natural iconography and bold use of electrification—a true illumination of Carnegie’s commitment to supporting and enjoying the work of contemporary artists in his time.
The Carnegie Legacy Today
The name Andrew Carnegie is as synonymous with philanthropy as it is with steel. It immediately conjures up visions of grand libraries and one of the world’s most renowned music halls, but these images offer only a glimpse into the staggering depth and breadth of one incredible man’s efforts for the betterment of our global society. Through his bequests, with which he disposed of his entire personal fortune, Carnegie founded twenty-two institutions, each with the goal of doing “real and permanent good in this world.”
Education—one of Carnegie’s greatest passions—is at the core of his philanthropic work, with a particular emphasis on scientific and technical research. His programs have fostered significant advancements in areas such as astronomy, genetics, medicine, and robotics, and they have also served to promote the visual and performing arts. Today, such institutions as Carnegie Mellon University, the Carnegie Institute of Science, and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching remain as pillars of the intellectual community. Carnegie also established institutions that encourage and reward morality, honor, and ethics on both the individual and national levels, such as the Carnegie Hero Fund Commission, the Carnegie Hero Funds in Europe and the UK, and the Carnegie Council of Ethics in International Affairs. Additionally, Carnegie advocated resolutely for world peace, endowing The Peace Palace in The Hague and founding the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to continue his work.
Remarkably, each one of these institutions has withstood a century of change and their work continues to dynamically influence society. It is a profound testament to the farsighted vision of their benefactor who, with his boundless optimism and keen sense of direction, imbued them with flexible mandates, tacitly trusting in future generations to manage the gifts he had given. Stellar amongst his institutions is the Carnegie Corporation of New York, whose multi-faceted work is exemplary in growing the legacy of Carnegie’s passion and vision. In 2001, under the leadership of its president, Vartan Gregorian, the Carnegie Corporation drew together the family of 22 Carnegie institutions in commemoration of the philanthropic chapter of Carnegie’s life. They have continued to meet biennially to award the prestigious Carnegie Medal of Philanthropy and to honor the extraordinary individuals and families of today who have followed Carnegie’s example through their own immense generosity. Of Carnegie’s many achievements, certainly one of his greatest is the legacy of philanthropy he left behind.
– Linda Thorell Hills, great-granddaughter of Andrew Carnegie