W ater and various aquatic creatures, including gold fish, were major elements of Louis Tiffany’s decorative schemes throughout his artistic career. Tiffany had a significant collection of Chinese and Japanese decorative objects and it is likely that he knew of the significance of the gold fish to those cultures. First displayed in bowls and later in ornamental ponds in China during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the fish came to symbolize abundance and wealth. Chinese traders brought gold fish to Japan in the 16th century, where it became known as koi, and was soon an important facet of that country’s art and culture. To the Japanese, koi represented perseverance and inner strength as well as prosperity.
Gold fish were the first non-indigenous fish brought into the United States. Pet stores were selling native versions in the mid-19th Century, but the popularity of the species increased dramatically when the first shipment of the fish from Japan arrived in this country in 1878. Tiffany was an early owner of the exotic animals. A suspended water-filled glass globe holding gold fish was featured in Louis Tiffany’s apartments within the family’s New York City mansion located on the corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street. Later, they could be seen around his Laurelton Hall estate.
A supposed initial attempt was to place an inverted 36-inch transparent glass globe in the center of the lily pond created at the back of the mansion. The intent was for the gold fish to swim into, and be showcased within, the globe. Unfortunately, the heat of the sun on the globe and the enclosed water caused the glass to explode and also possibly poach the fish in the process. Tiffany was not deterred and future efforts at Laurelton Hall met with greater success. On the side facing Long Island Sound, there was an expansive green lawn with a “large pool of gold fish in the center and masses of blue iris.” They were displayed more prominently within the mansion itself. At the conclusion of Tiffany’s famous Peacock Feast in May 1914, the invited guests “all went for coffee to the Moorish conservatory. The floor is of glass and covers a pool of water filled with gold fish.”
“It is the quick movement of the water that interests me, constant and pure as sunlight. I glory in its whimsicality.”
It is no wonder that Tiffany, appreciating the symbolic nature of the gold fish and its expanding place in American life, adapted it to his earliest window and lamp designs. Gold fish are significantly featured in three of Tiffany’s best-known windows: Flower, Fish and Fruit, made for Miss M.E. Garrett of Baltimore in 1885 (now in the collection of the Baltimore Museum of Art); Parakeets and Gold Fish Bowl, circa 1889 (Museum of Fine Arts Boston); and Feeding the Flamingoes, circa 1892 (Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida). The Garret window, which features flanking suspended gold fish bowls, was so important to Tiffany that it is one of only twelve windows he selected to be illustrated in The Art Work of Louis C. Tiffany, his 1914 authorized biography. The two latter windows, both displayed in the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company’s exhibition at Chicago’s 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition, depict suspended globes containing impressionistic gold fish as their primary and central focal points. There is an obvious connection between all of these fishbowls and that ornamenting Tiffany’s Madison Avenue living quarters.
The theme perfectly combined Tiffany’s love of water and his appreciation of Asian art and symbolism. In a 1917 Harper’s Bazaar article, he explained how he utilized it in the decoration and landscaping of Laurelton Hall: "Well, you see...here water is used as an element of beauty, following the methods of the Far East. The Orientals worship water. To them it is a treasure rare, a guest they honor. Here it not only harmonizes with the architectural scheme, but the vital liquid suggests hope, a message even to those living in the arid places of life. So here I have a cascade. Just listen to its merry music as it splashes over the rockery. It is the quick movement of the water that interests me, constant and pure as sunlight. I glory in its whimsicality."
The "Fish and Wave" table lamp is perhaps Tiffany’s finest representation of water and gold fish and, at the same time, brilliantly showcases the finest attributes of his glass and metalwork. The base, attributed to Clara Driscoll, is listed in the company’s 1906 Price List as number 341. However, the selling price of $150 would suggest that the standard accompaniment for the base would have been a blown Favrile glass globe, which would seem to indicate the shade on this example, also attributed to Driscoll, was a special order and was apparently never again made by Tiffany Studios.
The glass selected for the shade is exceptional and creates an unsurpassed sense of motion. Unlike most of the company’s floral shades that show a repetitive design around the circumference, each of the gold fish are entirely distinct in shape and character. Beautifully comprised of amber and orange-streaked yellow glass, most of the fish are swimming counter-clockwise, with one diving towards the bottom. In an effect rarely seen in Tiffany’s shades, the glass comprising the fish was given a matte acid finish in order to reduce the glare produced by the electric lights. The sinuous vertical strands of seaweed, in glorious shades of green, aquamarine, teal and blue, sway gently upwards, with some overlapping a few of the gold fish. The glass selected for the background water passages is equally exceptional. Composed of rippled transparent green-streaked navy and blue glass, the pieces were placed so that the ripples go in a number of different directions, greatly adding to the overall effect of moving water. Mauve glass streaked with brilliant jewel-tone hues is selectively interspersed, evoking the sense of light reflecting on the water’s surface.
Not to be overlooked is the cast bronze base, which is one of the finest examples of metalware produced by the company’s foundry. The design, inspired by the gold fish’s legendary desire and fortitude to swim upstream no matter the effort, depicts three large fish swimming upwards against the current towards cresting waves surmounted by a rope-twist collar that supports the shade. The casting is of phenomenal quality, as is the applied rich brown patina with green highlights.
A major aspect of Tiffany Studios' marketing at the turn of the 20th Century was to proclaim that their glass and lamps were true works of art, the equivalent of any great painting or sculpture. This unique example of their Fish and Waves lamp superbly exemplifies that claim and highlights the firm’s remarkable standards of excellence in both manufacturing and aesthetics. It is indeed a masterwork and an object to be revered and treasured by all admirers of Tiffany’s oeuvre.