Painting with Light: A Louis Comfort Tiffany Tour of New York City
By Hideaway Report Contributor
February 26, 2018
Louis Comfort Tiffany was a man of the world, but his career anchored him in the boroughs of New York. The son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the eponymous jewelry boutique, Louis Comfort Tiffany studied to be a painter. He made his mark at the turn of the previous century by finding a way to paint with light — by designing his own glass, in innumerable colors, patterns and textures, and using it to create peerless windows, vases and lamps, primarily through Tiffany Studios, the company he launched in 1902. Tiffany’s gorgeous nature-inspired glass designs lit up the art nouveau period and gained worldwide recognition with an appearance at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris. The onset of the Depression, however, finally ended Tiffany’s dominance. His glass furnaces in Corona, Queens, are gone, as are his Manhattan showrooms and Laurelton Hall, his magnificent 84-room Long Island estate, which burned down in 1957. But enough survives today to build a Tiffany-themed trip to New York City.
The Neustadt Collection at the Queens Museum
When Tiffany Studios closed in 1937, four years after its founder died, its stock of flat glass sheets and three-dimensional decorative pieces known as “jewels” might have scattered to the four winds were it not for Dr. Egon Neustadt, an Austrian-born American orthodontist who became an early and ardent collector of Tiffany. He ultimately owned more than 200 lamps and more than a quarter of a million glass samples. Today, part of his collection is on show at the Queens Museum, which is less than two miles from the site of Tiffany’s glassworks. A Passion for Tiffany Lamps, which is on view at the museum until April 30, 2018, celebrates Neustadt, who bought his first Tiffany lamp, in a Daffodil pattern, in 1935 for $12.50 — a bargain then and certainly now. The finest Tiffany lamps currently command five to seven figures at auction.
Included in the show are rare examples of the Pond Lily globe shade and the Peacock hanging shade, along with the Daffodil lamp that Neustadt purchased way back when. A Passion for Tiffany Lamps also features shelves upon shelves of Tiffany glass in every color you can think of, and a few that you can’t until you see them right in front of you. Anyone who has reveled in the possibilities of a bountiful box of crayons will be dazzled by the Tiffany glass here. But this is strictly a look-don’t-touch situation. The glass samples, textured to resemble the folds of drapery or fans, are themselves behind a protective sheet of clear glass.
New York City Building, Flushing Meadows Corona Park, Queens. Tel. (718) 592-9700
The New-York Historical Society
Dr. Egon Neustadt’s generosity was not restricted to the Queens Museum. In 1983, he gave half of his collection of Tiffany lamps to the New-York Historical Society, and in April 2017, they received a dedicated space on the museum’s fourth floor. The Gallery of Tiffany Lamps graces a 4,800-square-foot, two-story space with a spectacular (non-Tiffany) glass staircase. The 100 lamps on show include the crowd-pleasing Wisteria lamp, several iterations on the Dragonfly lamp shade and a one-of-a-kind Dogwood floor lamp.
The New-York Historical Society also has an interactive Design-A-Lamp feature that offers patrons a blank lampshade that they can (virtually) fill with colors and light by touching a brass plate. It also shines a spotlight on the “Tiffany girls,” women who Louis Comfort Tiffany employed in the Women’s Glass Cutting Department under the watch of head designer Clara Driscoll (not to be confused with the Texas-born businesswoman of the same name). Tiffany believed the opposite sex was better at selecting the dozens upon dozens of individual pieces of colored glass needed to compose a lampshade. The beauty of the best Tiffany lampshades, some of which required almost 2,000 pieces of glass to make, do much to prove him right.
The New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West. Tel. (212) 873-3400
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
When it comes to the works of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Met delivers on a grand scale. Several Tiffany masterpieces earned places in the jaw-droppingly beautiful Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing: a magnificent window that depicts an autumn landscape; a 21-foot-by-23-foot columnar screen salvaged from Tiffany’s grand long-lost estate, Laurelton Hall; a garden landscape mosaic with a fountain base; and an 11-foot-tall Byzantine-inspired mosaic column, one of six originally designed for the company’s Manhattan boutique, festooned in tiny sparkling tiles of blue, purple, green and gold. Once you’ve given each of these a good, long, luxurious look, explore the rest of the American Wing, which holds more than 200 other Tiffany treasures. Gallery 774, a special display that acts as a visible storage center for the Met, contains a workbench and a soldering iron from Tiffany Studios. And Gallery 743 features an 1872 oil-on-canvas by Tiffany, titled “Snake Charmer at Tangier, Africa,” dominated by browns, beiges and whites and displaying a typically sensitive command of light.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue. Tel. (212) 535-7710
Like Dr. Neustadt, the late Lillian Nassau embraced Tiffany when Tiffany was out of fashion. Nassau founded her eponymous gallery in 1945 and deserves most, if not all, of the credit for building and reviving the reputation of Louis Comfort Tiffany and the output of his studios. When she opened her shop, dealers were punching the glass out of the less-popular lampshade designs and selling the metal for scrap. The market had improved by 1956, when she bought her first Tiffany lamp. They were worth more intact by then, and were commanding three-digit sums. Thanks in no small part to her dogged devotion to Tiffany, one of his lamps crossed the million-dollar threshold at Sotheby’s in April 1995, six months before she died.
In 2006, the gallery’s longtime managing director, Arlie Sulka, purchased it from Nassau’s family and carries on her legacy today. (Sulka is a mainstay on “Antiques Roadshow” and has published two books on Tiffany.) While she has expanded the gallery’s scope to include midcentury modern material, such as furniture by George Nakashima and Albert Paley, Tiffany is still the heart of the business. It’s possible to pick up a hanging Dragonfly lamp, a mosaic sample panel, an iridescent gold vase that resembles the bloom of a Jack in the Pulpit flower and a 12-light candelabrum in one trip to Lillian Nassau.
220 East 57th Street. Tel. (212) 759-6062
Founded in 1971, the Macklowe Gallery focuses on 20th-century decorative arts, with an emphasis on Louis Comfort Tiffany. Now under the leadership of Benjamin Macklowe, son of founders Lloyd and Barbara, the gallery moved to 445 Park Avenue in midtown Manhattan in November 2017. The Macklowe Gallery typically makes the rounds of notable American antiques fairs, including the Winter Antiques Show, held at the Park Avenue Armory every January.
The Macklowe Gallery’s stock includes Tiffany lighting in all its forms — from chandeliers and floor lamps to art glass and picture frames. Recent offerings include a pair of Dogwood Ball lamps, created for the Grand Hôtel in Stockholm around 1905, and an alluring Peacock vase that dates to circa 1900. Beware the Macklowe Gallery website, however. You can easily lose an afternoon exploring the “Education” section, which features books, articles, biographies and more about Louis Comfort Tiffany and the periods of art nouveau and art deco.
445 Park Avenue. Tel. (212) 644-6400
Auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s
If you plan to be in New York, check the websites of Sotheby’s and Christie’s for Tiffany-heavy auctions before you go, as auctions titled “Design,” or “Important Design” can often include works by Louis Comfort Tiffany. In December 2017, for example, Sotheby’s had a pair of auctions that pulled in a total of $12.4 million dollars with the help of rare Tiffany masterworks.
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