The Quest of Beauty

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Detail: Gould Landscape Window, 1910. Provenance: Miss Helen Gould, Vito D’Agostino

WORDS BY:   John D’Agostino
WORKS:    www.EmpireofGlass.com

One of America’s most acclaimed artists, Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) embraced virtually every artistic medium, from stained glass windows, lamps and mosaics, to pottery, metalwork, interiors and enamels.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, Fish Panel, ca. 1906. Provenance: Vito D’Agostino




Louis Comfort Tiffany, Gould Landscape Window, 1910. Provenance: Miss Helen Gould, Vito D’Agostino.

Tiffany asked why so many of us made such little use of our eyes, and why we so obstinately refrained from using color in architecture, clothing and elsewhere, when nature so clearly indicated its mastership. He referred to this as the “sovereign importance of color” – and set out to rectify the situation in a relentless “quest for beauty.”

The elder son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the famed Tiffany and Company jewelry store, the young Louis began his career as a painter, working under George Inness (1825–1894). Early notable designs of his included the redecoration of The White House for President Chester A. Arthur in 1881. At the World’s Fair in 1893 in Chicago, over a million visitors waited in line to see his ornate Byzantine Chapel, and at the Paris Universal 1900, Tiffany won the grand prize, a gold medal, and the Légion d’honneur. Internationally recognized as one of the greatest forces of Art Nouveau, Tiffany’s work would still fall completely out of fashion by the 1920’s.

Tiffany used the medium of glass to challenge the pre-eminence of painting. In glass, Tiffany found a medium of endless possibilities that expressed his love of light and color. He felt that no painting could capture its brilliance, at one point creating stained glass windows based on well known artists such as Toulouse-Lautrec to prove the point home. He could suggest a myriad of natural surfaces, from hard stone, primal magma and volcanic rock, to the sensuous, iridescent surfaces of winged creatures like butterflies, dragonflies and peacocks. Claiming a palette of some 5000 colors, Tiffany had an incredible array of different kinds of favrile glass to work with, from lava (volcanic) glass, to cypriote glass, to drapery glass and ripple glass, just to name a few.

Tiffany began experimenting with glass about 1875 in Brooklyn. He was inspired by ancient Roman, Greek and Egyptian glass, that, when dug up hundreds of years later, were imbued with an incredible iridescent quality, due to the ores and oxides of the earth seeping in. Frustrated with the limited palette of the glass of the time, he turned to making his own opalescent glass, with the colors fused inside in molten form. This was in stark contrast to the predominant method since the Middle Ages, which was the staining of colorless glass. Using a witch’s brew of secret recipes including metallic oxides, chromium, silver, gold and even uranium, Tiffany called his trademark glass favrile, after the Old English word fabrile (hand-wrought), a signification meant to reflect the hand-made quality of his glass. It cannot be duplicated even today. Quite simply, it is the finest glass ever made.



“Infinite, endless labor makes the masterpiece. Color is to the eye as music is to the ear.”
-Louis Comfort Tiffany


Strength to Dream Catalog

This text first appeared as part of the paper The Strength to Dream: How Remnants of the Past Illustrate a Legacy of the Representation of Vision by John D’Agostino, published in ArtForum’s Art&Education Papers Archive, 2010.

View the full paper online here.
Purchase Hardcopy here.


An eccentric, autocratic perfectionist, Tiffany was notorious for walking down the production lines of Tiffany Studios with his cane, smashing anything he found to be unacceptable. Stories exist of craftsman actually scurrying to hide works from him in the fear that he would destroy them. “Mother Nature is the best designer” he said, and he set out to summon up the kingdom of nature, in all its glory. Using sophisticated abstract forms derived from nature as the material for his Art Nouveau motifs, historians like Robert Koch would later dub him the grandfather of Abstract Expressionism, a narrative confirmed by my father, artist John E. D’Agostino (born 1941), whose original inspiration for the abstract was not any of the expected originators of the movement, but Tiffany himself.

While Tiffany’s work would suffer from the vagaries of taste and fashion, the uniqueness of his oeuvre today is unquestionable. Perhaps the lowest moment was in 1936, when salvage dealers were smashing Tiffany’s celebrated lamps against the curbs, just so they could melt down the intricate bronze and lead frames holding the glass for scrap metal. For the artists of Art Nouveau, the lotus, a motif Tiffany would use again and again, appropriately, symbolized rebirth. For art lovers like my grandfather Vito D’Agostino, it was just a matter of time. Tiffany’s reputation would plummet from international renown to obscurity and disfavor, but only to rise yet even stronger once again.    •