Louis Comfort Tiffany made a name for himself as an American master of stained glass, drawing inspiration for his designs from nature’s brilliant hues. Thanks to Winter Park’s Morse Museum of Art, Central Floridians are not only familiar with Tiffany’s name but also with his stunning works.
Susan Vreeland is a novelist who has made a name for herself with tales of artists and their masterpieces, such as Girl in Hyacinth Blue and Luncheon of the Boating Party. Now, with Clara and Mr. Tiffany, she familiarizes readers with an intriguing backstory to the iconic Tiffany lamps, drawing on the letters of Clara Driscoll, a leading designer for Tiffany Studios.
Did Clara, who headed up the unmarried female workforce known as the Tiffany Girls, actually come up with the idea of leaded-glass lampshades with nature-based themes? Perhaps. That she certainly played an intrinsic part in their design and execution is now well known and documented, although the Tiffany Girls received only passing credit at the time.
Vreeland’s Clara is extraordinarily pleased to read in a small 1895 brochure that “Many of the firm’s great mosaic projects have been executed by women.’’ She just wishes the great man she works for had used a bit more ink and included her name. It would be something to show a man who wants to marry her what she would be giving up for him. Tiffany, who hired women because they couldn’t belong to unions, also insisted that they remain single.
When the book begins in 1892, Clara is rejoining the studio as after the death of her husband. Tiffany, exuberant and bombastic, is delighted to have her back to work on his latest project – a Byzantine chapel for the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago. “In 1893 the name of Louis Comfort Tiffany will be on the lips of millions!’’ he enthuses to Clara, later declaring “I’ve always thought that women have greater sensitivity to nuances of color than men do,’’ as he directs her to find more women to work on the chapel windows.
She does, convincing art students and talented immigrants alike, “You have to love it enough to forgo all other loves, including men.’’ Over the years, Clara also must convince herself as she is courted by various suitors while living at a bohemian boarding house full of artists, actors and writers. That Clara’s generally unlucky at love proves lucky for Tiffany, but also for Vreeland, as the tug between art and heart gives the first-person narrative most of its tension.
Vreeland’s Clara is a woman ahead of her time in some ways, but it’s still a man’s world, and Vreeland nicely details the prejudices Clara confronts, especially at the union-dominated studio. But Vreeland hasn’t met a fact she doesn’t like, and hardly a page passes without her instructing readers in the meticulous aspects of making stained glass, or even the origin of slang expressions. Poor Clara can’t admire a flower without referencing a cabochon jewel and explaining it to a gentlemen friend.
Too many long-winded expository scenes in pedantic prose made me eager to return to Clara riding her bicycle or meeting privately with the mercurial, flawed Tiffany, whose talents and ambitions exceed his business expertise. Mostly, though, I wanted to head over to the Morse and look again at the Tiffany masterpieces. I’ll wonder if Tiffany really threw a gold piece in the molten glass to make the purest red. And did Clara design that daffodil?
Open Book: I received a galley copy of Clara and Mr. Tiffany (Random House) from the publisher. The Morse Museum is one of Florida’s gems, and its major expansion of the Tiffany galleries is set to open in February. Several of my friends work at the Morse, including my former Sentinel colleague Catherine Hinman, who is director of publicity and named in Vreeland’s acknowledgments. Visit the museum at www.morsemuseum.org