Pebbles and Jewels
Louis Comfort Tiffany was fascinated by glass and other translucent materials. In the early 1880s, he utilized unusual cast-off glass from glass factories in Brooklyn to create such unusual windows as that for his residence in the Bella Apartments, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. That window is an abstract design derived purely from the pieces of glass, shards he collected for their beauty alone, not because they looked like folds of cloth, clouds, or sunlight among leaves. He was in love with glass for its own sake, in keeping with the spirit of the Aesthetic Movement in which beauty was its own raison d’etre
In this pair of panels, we can see that his interest in translucent materials extended beyond glass to include quartz stones. Washed by millennia of sand and water, the pebbles are smooth and rounded, with a velvety frosted surface. The gentle tones of ecru, ivory, and russet blend together in a naturalistic palette that is not imitative, as it would be if done in glass, but actually taken from nature without alteration. To add a touch of color, tiny hand-faceted glass jewels in green, amber, and red sparkle between the pebbles. Lacunae between the pebbles give a dimensionality unusual in a stained-glass panel—the eye passes through the panel to what is behind it.
Unlike other stained-glass artists of his era, Tiffany was equally interested in the texture of windows, realizing that in residential settings, many windows would often be seen by the light of lamps on the interior, and not just with the sunlight passing through them. This pair was mounted as cabinet doors and might never have been lit by the sun. He took the rounded, pointed, or rough surfaces of the pebbles and glass jewels into consideration as he arranged them in an Arabesque design. He also modeled the lead came that holds them together into reeds, spirals, stems, and swirls that organize the pebbles into a flowing, rhythmic composition. Varying the width of the leads by laying them in singles, pairs, and triples, and using a minute came for the swirls that look like fiddleheads, he used the came in the same way a calligrapher uses different nibs or a painter different brushes to enliven a line. These textured leads are invisible in the transmitted light of the sun through a window, appearing only as a black negative space. In reflected light, however, we see the full composition in all its complexity.
In the 1890s the public became aware of these pebble compositions. British art critic Cecilia Waern illustrated one window (sold at Sotheby’s New York, December 17, 2009, lot 423) in her two-part article on Tiffany Studios in 1897.1
Tiffany exhibited another (perhaps the same one) at the Grafton Galleries in London where it was mentioned in a review in the International Studio in 1899.2
By the turn of the century, he was using pebbles in lampshades. Another pebble window graced the home of Joseph Briggs, Tiffany’s studio foreman, and is now in the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, Winter Park, Florida. But Tiffany was using such materials in the early 1880s. A recent acquisition by the Metropolitan Museum of Art is a highly unusual composition of found glass framed in the Aesthetic Style with pebbles and sculpted lead. It is dated to the 1880s and is probably contemporary with these panels.
-Julie Sloan, Stained-Glass Consultant, North Adams, MA