Opulent Tiffany lamps and windows now on display at CAM

As a kid, I associated leaded glass lampshades with antique settings, hearkening to a refined past. When I was growing up in the 1950s, Connie, my family’s next-door neighbor who was about the age of my grandparents, had one. She took it upon herself to inspire me to read widely and to write, and we often sat in her book-lined living room to discuss words and ideas. One of those lamps with a leaded glass shade was the centerpiece of that room. I don’t know whether Connie’s lamp came from the studio of Louis C. Tiffany, but if not, it was certainly inspired by those iconic works. I still think of it as a source of illumination, literally and metaphorically.

Apple Blossom Library Lamp, Circa 1905Today genuine Tiffany works — glowing lamps and windows — are treasured as precious examples of decorative arts, prized by collectors. The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass in Queens, NY, is a preeminent institution in the art world. Dr. Egon Neustadt began acquiring Tiffany lamps in 1935 when he and his wife Hildegard found one in a second-hand shop in Greenwich Village.

Tiffany’s designs were considered passé, and that lamp cost them just $12.50. Their purchase was the beginning of a lifelong passion for creations that are passé no more.

Tiffany Glass: Painting with Color and Light, a temporary Cincinnati Art Museum exhibition, has been drawn from the Neustadt Collection’s extensive holdings. In three galleries adjacent to the museum’s Terrace Café, you can view five windows, 20 lamps and 100 pieces of opalescent flat glass and glass jewels. Admission is free to visitors.

The first gallery features timeless, luminous windows that demonstrate how Tiffany, trained as a painter, used glass to capture light and create impressionistic images. Creating these opulent, imaginative and complex artworks was a labor-intensive process, not the work of one man, so the gallery profiles of four key contributors: chemist Arthur J. Nash and three designers, Agnes Northrop, Frederick Wilson and Clara Driscoll.

Heavy Ribs Reading Lamp, Circa 1905Perhaps the most eye-catching item in the initial gallery is "Well by the Fence," a window conceived by Northrop. It’s a seemingly simple image until closer inspection reveals that every detail is created by singular pieces of glass with different colorations and finishes.

Wood grain in the ancient well shelter and the texture of the winding golden dirt road are augmented by the use of glass. A bed of abundant flowers and greenery are at the lower left, and to the right is a forest of trees casting dappled shadows. Hills in the pale green distance are illuminated by a dawn sky full of gray and pink clouds.

According to Lindsy Parrott, the Neustadt’s curator: “The pieces were chosen for their masterful rendering of nature in flowers or landscape scenes and for the subtle use of light and shading in decorative geometric patterns. They exemplify the rich and varied glass palette, sensitive color selection and intricacy of design so characteristic of Tiffany’s leaded-glass objects.”

Also in this gallery are samples of the sheet glass and jewels that remained after the Tiffany studios closed in the late 1930s. The 100 pieces displayed in this exhibition on shelves represent how the raw materials were sorted and available to artisans who could select colors and textures for their work.

The second gallery, with numerous lamps on display, includes a table showing wooden molds and tools used to assemble the leaded-glass shades, some of which required 2,000 intricate pieces to execute the now familiar designs for lamps. You can see works inspired by nature — iridescent dragonflies, crimson poinsettias, hollyhocks and hanging lavender wisteria blossoms.

Wisteria Library Lamp, Circa 1901Other designs are fascinatingly geometric. One reading lamp features a cascading rainbow of colors from blue to green, through yellow to orange to red. The individual pieces of glass had to be meticulously chosen to create the design. Artisans’ detailed craftsmanship is a significant factor today in determining whether or not a lamp is a forgery. Three lamps are on display in the third gallery, with notations that explain the telltale differences between original Tiffany items and copies.

Tiffany was the son of Charles Lewis Tiffany, founder of the iconic jeweler, Tiffany & Company, and that legendary jeweler’s first director of design. He died in 1933, just a year after his studio shut down. His style quickly fell from decorative favor, until the tastes of the art world evolved and admiration of the craft of creating art with bits of glass resurfaced. It’s remarkable today to see that many of his studio’s creations sold for a few dollars. Lucky for contemporary art lovers that the Neustadts saw the beauty of this art form and that it is shared with us today.

Connie, my long ago next-door neighbor, would have been there in a minute. The exhibition will be on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum through Aug. 13.

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Rick Pender is an Over-the-Rhine resident with many years of writing, editing, fundraising and public relations experience. He is the theater critic and contributing editor at CityBeat and a regular contributor to WVXU's "Around Cincinnati." Follow him on Twitter @PenderRick.