The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art in Winter Park was already home to one of the most comprehensive collections of the work of celebrated decorative artist Louis Comfort Tiffany, but last week it cinched its reputation as the museum for Tiffany art and fine-art objects. With the opening of 10 new galleries dedicated to interpretive exhibits from Tiffany's art-glass legacy, as well as architectural fragments from Laurelton Hall, Tiffany's famed New York estate, a more complete picture is available of the man known for his exquisite lamps.
Winter Park architecture firm Rogers, Lovelock & Fritz designed the project, working alongside world-class lighting and exhibit designers; the new wing was opened to the public on Feb. 19. If it wasn't already, Tiffany's legacy is now firmly ensconced in Central Florida, revealing as much about our place in history as it does about Tiffany's work.
Tiffany embedded crystals and gems into many of his glass works, marrying them with carved stone and forged metal in a rich, steamy jambalaya that reeks of the late 19th century in which he lived and worked. He helped release artists from their Beaux-arts bondage, and his exploration of electric light and glass made him a design pioneer in his day. When European modernists invaded America's aesthetic sensibilities around the turn of the 20th century, however, Tiffany's popularity waned; the Great Depression cemented his reputation as the artist to the hated rich.
Before modernism - which was heavily influenced by Freud's studies of the subconscious mind - exotic art was inspired by the outside world, rather than the inner world. Tiffany's work, for instance, was influenced by nature as well as Asian, African, Celtic and Islamic design. His pieces have an old-world weight to them; the leaded glass and wrought iron works in his designs almost evoke the medieval. They feel massive and substantive, and it's particularly interesting to consider them in contrast to the work of popular contemporary glass master Dale Chihuly, whose ephemeral, bubble-like blown-glass objects seem so fragile and untouchable.
Once Tiffany's style fell out of favor, his legacy nearly vanished; after fire destroyed his studio and estate at Laurelton Hall, he could easily have become an Antiques RoadShow footnote were it not for the efforts of Hugh and Jeannette McKean. Hugh McKean was a painter who was selected by the Tiffany Foundation to join other artists at Laurelton Hall in the 1930s, where they worked under Tiffany's guidance. In 1932, he joined the faculty of Rollins College. The Chicago-born Jeannette Genius enrolled as a student at Rollins in the 1920s and remained involved with the school long after. In the 1930s she was elected a school trustee and founded the Morse Gallery of Art on the Rollins Campus in 1942. She named Hugh McKean, then a Rollins art professor, its director. Hugh and Jeannette married in 1945, and the two began a collection of fine-art objects, including pieces by Tiffany. In 1955, they had amassed enough Tiffany pieces to hold the first exhibit of Tiffany works in a museum since the artist's death in 1933.
So when Laurelton Hall, Tiffany's 84-room mansion on Long Island, was destroyed by a mysterious fire in 1957, it was no wonder that his daughters contacted the McKeans first. The couple made a pact to salvage whatever was contained in the ashen ruins. With that, Winter Park became Tiffany's new home, as the couple recovered more and more of the artist's glass works, tiles, carved doorframes, pottery and paintings from the estate and at auctions and galleries.
Today, the Morse is a fortress on Park Avenue, a blank facade visitors enter through a minimalist doorway. Once inside, the eyes adjust to the dim but warm lighting and are soon sensitized to the intense colors and patterns in the windows, lamps and vases on display. The museum has something of a mystique about it - it takes no public funds, operating on an endowment left by the McKeans to sustain it, and it barely announces its presence in the community; it's almost as if it functions on a need-to-know basis. Out-of-town and international visitors vastly outnumber the locals, which is a shame considering that a visit to the Morse is a ludicrously cheap way to dramatically deepen one's understanding of a particular period of American art.
Admission is even free for a month to entice neighbors to stop in: Would that ever happen at the theme parks?
In the new wing, Tiffany's Daffodil Terrace, a marble- columned porch with finely carved and painted wood beams crisscrossing over delightful column capitals decorated with daffodils, has been reconstructed. Some capitals are displayed at eye level so you can get a good look at the craftsmanship: Light glints off the thick yellow and green glass petals mortared into the capital. Each of these century-old pieces is handmade, unique.
In one gallery, a Laurelton Hall window stands backlit, its panels illustrated according to themes: geology, astronomy, science, religion, knowledge and entombment (which features the entombment of Christ). Each is a source of inspiration Tiffany taught to his apprentices. Embroidered in frenzied Celtic patterns at the edge and richly colored, the piece is at once traditional and timeless. Next to it is "Snowball and Wisteria Window"; off-center and lacking a focal point, this piece is marvelously influenced by Japanese Ichibana compositional style - so sophisticated, and even more intense due to its small size. Behind these windows, macho carved-wood doors from Laurelton stand; the carving in them is done with such fine detail that from afar they look almost furry.
From vases that were part of Comfort's personal collection to the elaborate architectural tiles used to frame a doorway at Laurelton Hall, this exhibit makes one thing abundantly clear: Wealth and excess in Victorian times bought the best of American art and craft; by contrast, wealth and excess in today's times buys little of either.
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