American stained glass windows, long shrugged off as a Victorian enthusiasm, are attracting increasing interest, say museum curators, and Cincinnati is on the leading edge of this trend.
The Taft Museum of Art recently opened In Company with Angels: Seven Rediscovered Tiffany Windows. And at the Cincinnati Art Museum conservation is under way on four stained glass windows to go on view next May. Each set of windows has a Cincinnati history, and all were made in the famed 19th- and 20th-century studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Tiffany “was an artist, not a craftsman,” Lynne Ambrosini, the Taft’s chief curator, says firmly.
Amy Dehan, associate curator of decorative arts at the CAM, agrees.
“He was a fabulous colorist,” Dehan says, adding that his approval was essential to each step of the process. Ambrosini notes that, “In the beginning, Tiffany did all the hands-on work but quickly added studio assistants as commissions came in … always (using) a draftsman for figures, since he was a landscape artist by training. He was tough on assistants and re-drew designs, made them take out unsatisfactory glass.”
The back story for the windows in the Taft exhibition has all the elements of a good piece of fiction. When a Cincinnati Swedenborgian congregation built a new church in 1903, at the corner of Oak and Winslow streets in Walnut Hills, it exemplified the popular Gothic Revival style and included new, 8-foot-high Tiffany stained-glass lancet windows to light the sanctuary. Brought along from their old church was the 1860s carved altar furniture made by Henry L. Fry, British-born Cincinnati wood carver who before his death in 1895 had been a member of the congregation.
Fast forward to 1964, when construction of Interstate 71 required demolition of the church. The structure was taken over through eminent domain, but parishioners rescued the furniture and purchased seven windows back from the government.
But where to store 8-foot windows packed in even larger boxes? They went into parishioners’ garages, basements, wherever they might fit and finally were gathered together to spend a decade in one garage until a Swedenborgian retreat center near Philadelphia bought them all in 1991.
They were then transferred to a leaky barn on its premises and forgotten. But a new minister, poking around a decade later, discovered the cache and arranged for cleaning and restoration by conservation specialists. The Tiffany signature was discovered as the old dust and dirt came off, and the windows’ history was reconstructed. The traveling exhibition is organized by In Company with Angels, Inc., a corporation formed to sustain care and protection of the windows.
The Taft’s installation is striking and informative, immediately setting the tone in the entrance gallery where an old photograph of the church’s sanctuary, enlarged to wall-size, is mounted. A marble bust of Emanuel Swedenborg stands nearby, and a wall text describes the Swedenborgian faith. Swedenborg, an 18th-century Swedish scientist with a mystic bent, developed an appealing theory that angels are among us and that even the sinful can “become angels if they admit their errors and embrace new truths revealed in the afterlife.”
In one of the pleasant ties the Taft likes to have with its exhibitions, the Swedenborg bust is by Preston Powers, whose father Homer gained sculptural fame in Italy after being sent there by Nicholas Longworth, longtime resident of the mansion that eventually became the Taft Museum.
The New Jerusalem congregation became the New Church of Montgomery, whose building is undergoing renovation right now and thus is able to loan the Fry altar furniture to the exhibition. The lectern, altar and two chairs appearing in the second gallery are distinguished by Fry’s deep-relief carving, stunningly difficult to execute. Before actually entering the company of Tiffany angels, visitors can learn about their making from an informative wall text and display of tools of the trade.
The seven windows form a semi-circle in a darkened gallery, each lighted from behind. These are serious-looking angels, but not so remote as those in the medieval stained glass of Europe. Their wings, produced by a Tiffany-invented process called “rippled glass,” are glorious, with more shades of rosy red than glass might be expected to produce, and their robes are marvelously rendered. Tiffany’s mastery of an old art form and his inspired inventiveness in reviving it are splendidly on display. Each window is named for one of seven ancient cities visited by St. John and written about by him in the book of Revelations, and each angel holds an object referring to those biblical texts.
CAM’s windows were acquired last December, from St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church where they had been installed in 1900. The final service in the church, on Reading Road in Avondale, was held three years ago; the building is being renovated by the diocese for a neighborhood outreach program.
“It was a wonderful opportunity for us,” Dehan says, pointing out that Tiffany-blown glass is part of the museum’s collection but previously no windows were included.
IN COMPANY WITH ANGELS runs at the Taft Museum of Art through Sept. 11, with special exhibition tours, gallery talks and related special events including artists from Cincinnati glass studios and programs about the “Tiffany Girls” who worked in the studio. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.