The Freedom of Form Found in Nature
Louis Tiffany’s love of nature, particularly flowers, was apparent in much of his artistic creations, from his earliest paintings and interior decorations to the later objects produced by Tiffany Studios. It is therefore not at all surprising that the first truly distinctive shape produced by his glasshouse was the flower form.
Tiffany’s Stourbridge Glass Company, later named Tiffany Furnaces, began producing blown glass objects in late 1893. These pieces were first publicly displayed as a largely ignored component of the company’s New York City exhibition of its famous Chapel, made for the Columbian Exposition in February 1894. Included were “holders for single flowers, shaped like tulips just opening.”1 These earliest attempts at the form were relatively crude, usually consisting of a variegated and swirled glass bowl supported on a thick, sometimes sinuous, stem raised on an applied circular foot. Many were given a matte acid finish and the stems were occasionally enhanced slender threads of colored glass extending to the bowl, where they were manipulated to represent petals.
Thomas Manderson, the firm’s gaffer credited with developing the flower form motif, quickly improved his glassmaking techniques and a multitude of highly refined shapes and decorations were produced within a remarkably short time span. Perhaps the impetus came from Louis Tiffany’s brilliant sense of marketing, with the company advertising in March 1895 a collection of Favrile glass that “includes a variety of new and interesting shapes. Many colors in flower forms especially made for Easter.”2 Whatever the catalyst, critics were quick to give these vases exceptionally favorable reviews: “The shapes, too, are delightful in their simplicity. Mr. Tiffany has gone long beyond the time in the experience of most artists when they want to adorn that which is itself an adornment….There are other pieces that are like flowers and plants. There are some that have bulbs and twine upward as a vine as a tulip does. There are others that bring to mind hyacinths and narcissi. They are all beautiful, and Mr. Tiffany is to be congratulated on having brought into the world a new art.”3
The construction techniques of the flower form vases were well established by 1898, although the decorative variations were seemingly endless. The circular domed bases, most with folded-under rims, were generally of transparent yellow or reactive opalescent white glass with a gold, or gold-orange, iridescence applied to the underside. Many bases were decorated with short green leaves radiating from the center. The long, slender stems, with short swollen sections, or “knops,” were applied to the bases and were usually lined with thin vertical threads of colored glass. These threads extended to the bowl and were expanded and tooled to form encircling leaves. The bowls, usually of clear reactive glass, were also frequently enhanced with white petals on the exterior and an interior iridescence matching that of the base.
The top rims of the bowls, ranging from tapered to galleried to flared to ruffled, superbly demonstrate the exceptional skill and imagination of the firm’s gaffers, as they attempted to emulate a wide variety of flowers. However, these were not intended to be exact replicas, but impressionistic interpretations: “They did not represent an attempt to reproduce flowers exactly, but simply to give a suggestion of the lily, the crocus and the tulip. Louis C. Tiffany, however, has been particularly successful in getting the texture of the flowers, the soft quality of the petals, in light, springlike colors. The variety and the freedom of form found in nature were very noticeable.”4
The following flower forms offered here superbly represent the motif in many of its most appealing designs. “Egyptian Onions” (lot 413) first appeared in 1900 and were aptly described at the time: “One of the vases had a novel form, in that it appeared to sprout from an onion for a base, with a peculiar texture, neither polished nor dull.”5 Lot 420 was listed as an “Iris” epergne in a 1905 Tiffany Studios pamphlet. Recently discovered documents also allow for a greater specificity in defining other shapes.6 The vase now known as a “Calyx” (lots 417 and 418) was actually referred to by the company as a “Lily” vase. Lot 408, which were made in either iridescent blue or gold and 13 or 16 inches in height, should actually be called a “Calla Lily” vase. Perhaps the greatest misnomer is what is today referred to as a “Jack-in-the Pulpit” (lots 409, 410 and 414). This iconic broadly rimmed vases was first made by gaffer John Hollingsworth around 1906.7 Approximately 18 inches tall, the gold version was sold for $25 while the model in blue was priced at $30. In reality, this model should be known as a “Pansy” vase. This is the name the glasshouse used in describing the design and, botanically speaking, the rim much more resembles more closely a pansy blossom than that of a jack-in-the-pulpit.
Whatever the nomenclature, these vases were treasured by collectors while critics were almost poetic in their unanimous praise of the model. In describing a large grouping of flower forms that were to be displayed at the 1900 Paris Exposition, one reviewer rhapsodized: “There are several very choice examples of long–stemmed flower–holders, themselves based upon the motive of a tulip. The flower form has been excellently conventionalized; the design is virile as well as elegant and the coloring indescribably sensitive. In one case a particularly beautiful effect has been obtained by crinkling the edges of the petals, so that they catch the light more delicately and with more transparency than the body of the flower. Thus from the base upwards there is a gradation effect, and the pure chlorine of the bowl passes away at length into a room of sunlight; an idea most artistically conceived and executed.”8
—Paul Doros, Author, The Art Glass of Louis Comfort Tiffany