Louis Comfort Tiffany was born in New York City on February 18, 1848, to Harriet Olivia Young and Charles Lewis Tiffany, the founder of Tiffany & Co. Rather than joining the family business, Tiffany began his career as a painter, studying at the National Academy of Design from 1866–67 and, in the following year, with the French painter LéonCharles Adrien Bailly in Paris. He travelled throughout Europe and North Africa, sketching the exotic landscapes and architecture and translating them into early oils and watercolors.
Tiffany’s next major venture was as a prominent decorator in Gilded Age New York. In 1881 he merged several interior design partnerships to create Louis C. Tiffany and Company, Associated Artists, which would decorate the Veteran’s Room of the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York that year, and the Red Room of the White House the next.
By the 1870s Tiffany had already begun experimenting with new glass forms and techniques. In late 1892, he built his own glasshouse in Corona, Queens, New York, hiring the skilled émigré artisan and designer Arthur J. Nash to oversee the factory, which produced Favrile and other unique varieties of glass to be used in ecclesiastical and secular stained-glass windows, lamps, vases, mosaics, and accessories.
One of the most notable exhibitions of Tiffany’s career took place in Chicago: the Tiffany Chapel at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1892–93. The Romanesque Revival chapel, which occupied space within Tiffany & Co.’s exhibit, included stained-glass windows, an elaborate chandelier, and extensive Byzantine-style mosaics. Tiffany’s great success at the Columbian Exposition earned him 54 medals and a number of important commissions, including, in the Chicago region, the Chicago Public Library and the Field Memorial Gallery in the Art Institute of Chicago.
While the magnificence and exceptional quality of Tiffany glass made this medium the most significant of his career, he continued to innovate, expanding his operations into enamels, pottery, and jewelry. In 1902 his father died, and Tiffany became the art director of Tiffany & Co. The same year, Tiffany Studios was incorporated at 333-341 Fourth Avenue, New York, and Tiffany began to build his Long Island country home, Laurelton Hall, developing its famous gardens on 600 acres overlooking Oyster Bay.
Despite the enormous success he experienced in his many interrelated businesses over his long career, his firm went out of business in 1924, and Tiffany Studios filed for bankruptcy in 1932. When he died in 1933, the New York Times obituary counted him “among the best known of American artists.” Although his work went out of vogue with the advent of modernism, it was revived at midcentury and continues to be associated with unparalleled quality and beauty to this day.
Joaquin Sorolla y Bastida (1863-1923), Louis Comfort Tiffany, 1911. Oil on canvas, 59 ½ x 88 ¾ in. Courtesy of the Hispanic Society of America, New York.