By Joan Brown Wettingfeld
Somewhere in the mists of antiquity lies the true story of the discovery of glass, a story which has fascinated me over the years. My husband had a talent for unusual pursuits, one of which was glass blowing, a skill he developed in order to produce the unusual apparatus for the chemical experiments which interested him from an early age. Together we visited glass studios in this country and abroad, including the Isle of Murano near Venice, Italy.
I was reminded of the story of glass recently when I recalled the authenticated Tiffany window in Bayside's All Saints Church when I was delving into their history for an important upcoming event, the celebration of a new ministry, the institution of their 14th rector, the Rev. Kent William Johnson on Saturday, April 20.
The earliest records of glass and glass making come from Mesopotamia in the 17th century B.C., but vitreous glazes were known and used by the Egyptians before 3000 B.C. By the 1st century B.C. it is probable that glass blowing and the manufacture of glass on a commercial scale took place in Sidon. Here glass was an important item of trade, and the Egyptian port of Alexandria was equally notable at the time as a center for early glass making and export.
By 14 A.D. it is known that glass was made in Rome, probably introduced through trade, and from there the art spread to the Empire, especially Gaul and the Rhineland. Much of what we know about early glass and the Roman art of glass making comes from “Natural History,” the work of Pliny the Elder, (A.D. 23-A.D. 70) who investigated not only as a naturalist but delved into all the sciences. In his writings he refers often to glass, and especially to the art of coloring it.
Glass as an art form owes much to the ancient glass found in excavations where the process of decomposition after years of burial showed on the surface as a rainbow-like display of color. It was this effect which attracted the attention of later 19th century artisans, among others, Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Tiffany was born in 1848, a time when his merchant father was reaching the zenith of his success as a gem dealer and had a world-wide reputation as a connoisseur of the arts. It is easy to see why Tiffany gravitated naturally to a creative life. He began as a painter, working in Europe and Morocco. His real interest emerged soon after and he opened an interior design studio. In time, numbered among his clients were the elite of New York who sought his expertise and that of the large staff he employed, to design unusual and elaborate stained glass objects and windows for their luxurious townhouses.
In 1893 he opened the Tiffany Furnaces in Corona, Queens. The 19th century has been called the “Age of the Chemist” and many new processes were being devised and old techniques were being studied and revived. It was then that Tiffany, with the help of a German chemist, formulated a new expression in iridescent glass, born of his interest in the ancient glass of the Roman excavations and which was called “favrile.” It was used to embellish lamps, globes and vases for the fashionable homes of the day.
Glass lamp shades, especially Tiffany’s “mushroom” shade, continued in great demand during the Art Nouveau period but as the years went by the increasing use of electricity in the early 20th century removed the risk of fire and made possible the use of fabric or paper for making shades. The demand for glass shades declined.
The art of stained glass was Tiffany’s forte, and among his specialties were church windows. Colored glass windows date to Roman times, but stained glass was an invention of the 9th and 10th centuries, possibly originating in the reign of Charlemagne.
The use of stained glass in church settings was the most important visual art form from the 11th to the 13th centuries. By the time of the high Renaissance the use of stained glass declined. The Gothic period in the 19th century, with its emphasis on building churches in the Gothic style and in restoring existing monuments, renewed interest in stained glass. The revival was led abroad by William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones, but it fell to Tiffany to take the lead in the United States where he made stained glass a popular form of interior decoration and art, as well as for use in churches.
Tiffany's career peaked prior to World War I. He had an opulent mansion at the corner of Madison Avenue and 72nd Street which showcased his creativity, and a summer home, “Laurelton,” in Oyster Bay, Long Island where he presided over his “artist's colony.”
The post-War period gave way to the Great Depression, fashions changed, an era of opulence and wealth disappeared, and the famed Tiffany Studios closed in 1932, a year before Louis Comfort Tiffany's death. Fortunately, as with so many artistic movements, with rediscovery came revival. A retrospective exhibit of the Art Nouveau period at the Museum of Modern Art in 1960 sparked interest in Tiffany's work which continues with vigor to this day.
Joan Brown Wettingfeld is a historian, free-lance writer, and a member of the Borough President's History Advisory Committee.