Stepping out of the elevator into the entranceway of Louis C. Tiffany’s penthouse apartment, a visitor would have been welcomed by an eclectic array of color and texture. The ceiling was worked with rough pine beams that had been hammered with ornamental nailheads. The wall paneling was painted a red bold enough to maintain intensity even in dim lighting. On the floor was an arrangement of haphazardly stacked rifles and daggers. Above these, a mosaic-like glass window was lit by a flickering gas lamp and could be raised or lowered by an exposed pulley system. The composition featured richly hued shapes that fit together with an irregular balance. This uniquely striking piece, Tiffany’s earliest known domestic window, marks a point of innovation in the development of both abstraction and stained glass.
Tiffany’s first significant interior design was his own residence at the Bella Apartments at 48 East 26th Street, just off Madison Square in Manhattan. In 1880, around when this window was made for his new home, stained-glass techniques had barely changed since the Middle Ages. With uneven panes that didn’t lie perfectly flat, this rough construction appeared to have a lot in common with its medieval predecessors. But, as its amorphous outlines and curious details suggest, Tiffany was about to revolutionize the form. Evidence of his early experimentation can be seen in the far right of the panel. A sprinkling of multicolored glass flecks demonstrates a technique that Tiffany would use to create fracture or confetti glass in his later landscape and floral works. Other shards reveal moody opalescent and amber marbleization. The piece is studded throughout with jewel-like chunks of cut glass.
Most striking is the fat and juicy S curve that cuts through the composition. With striations of transparency, the aubergine line holds an uncanny likeness to a gestural stroke made by a fully loaded paintbrush. A lifelong painter, Tiffany was inspired to employ this technique by the residual markings of his palette knife from an oil painting session.
Tiffany, in considering his glasswork to be an extension of painting, sought to pioneer techniques that would allow him to “paint with glass.” In his later designs, cloudy tonal gradations and melting shifts in opacity were strategically used to suggest representational forms, such as the delicate curve of a magnolia petal or the round dimension of a piece of fruit.
This abstract composition is especially fascinating when we consider it alongside our understanding of Western art history. The window was crafted during the peak of Impressionism, when a distinct dab or brushstroke was cutting edge. For context, the shockingly modern abstraction of this glass piece predates the nonrepresentational paintings of Hilma af Klint by about twenty-six years and Wassily Kandinsky by thirty.
As a student of design, Tiffany had incredible access to research materials from around the world. He was well traveled and had already spent time in Egypt and Morocco by the time he designed the window in his foyer, and his apartment was a testament to his omnivorous taste. It was an inspired pastiche of Japanese, Chinese, Celtic, Indian, and Native American motifs and textures.
The asymmetrically fractured patterning of this window also bears a notable resemblance to a few different textile and craft traditions. Tiffany likely drew inspiration from the abstract compositions of North African textiles, such as Azilal, Boujad, and Beni Ourain rugs woven by Berber women. Immersed in the world of interior design, he also would have been familiar with the trends of the era such as American “crazy quilts.” Although often relegated to the domestic realm of women and craft, crazy quilt compositions were often sewn as carefully designed showpieces, not as functional blankets made from random scraps. These embroidered textile collages themselves had been inspired by ceramics and patchwork designs from Japan.
Considered speculation about Tiffany’s combined influences in the creation of this groundbreaking piece adds an exciting richness to our understanding of the development of Tiffany glass in the years that followed, as well as the evolution of abstraction in the West.
Karen Azoulay is a Canadian visual artist and author based in Brooklyn. Her book Flowers and Their Meanings was recently published by Clarkson Potter / Penguin Random House.