Magazine Antiques

Museum accessions – Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquires objects by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Edward William Godwin

Museum accessions – Virginia Museum of Fine Arts acquires objects by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Edward William Godwin – Brief Article

Eleanor H. Gustafson

Louis Comfort Tiffany and Edward William Godwin had many things in common. Both were seminal figures in design on their respective sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the second half of the nineteenth century; both were influenced by the painter James McNeill Whistler and Japanese art; both designed objects across a wide spectrum of mediums and often with a total vision in mind. Recently, important domestic examples by these two tastemakers have been acquired by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.

The side chair (illustrated above) was made to Godwin’s designs by William Watt of Grafton Street, London, one of the many manufacturers who executed Godwin’s furniture. It is virtually identical to a chair that was part of a suite Watt displayed at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878. The centerpiece of the suite was a cabinet (now in the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, Glasgow) painted with butterflies, clouds, and chrysanthemum petals by Whistler, who called it “Harmony in Yellow and Gold.” It is considered his most famous foray into the decorative arts, after the celebrated Peacock Room, now in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The pale yellow mahogany and the caning of the seat and part of the back of the chair correspond to the coloring of the cabinet decoration, and the chair’s delicate design and Japanesque inspiration is equally in tune with the cabinet. In a period dominated by heavy revival styles, such designs were truly revolutionary, precursors to the modern idiom.

On this side of the Atlantic, Tiffany was in the vanguard of design reform, also drawing inspiration from the Far East, often by way of Whistler’s work. The screen (illustrated at left) acquired by the Virginia Museum clearly recalls the color scheme of Whistler’s Peacock Room, completed only a few years earlier in 1879. The screen’s intricate patterns and combination of painted panels and aged-glass jewels set in wirework at once suggest the exotic and the antique, while the stark wooden frame bespeaks Tiffany’s modernity.

The screen is part of the decorative scheme Tiffany devised with his colleagues at Associated Artists for the extravagant thirty-room residence designed by James C. Cutler in Rochester, New York, for William S. Kimball, a tobacco magnate, and his second wife, Laura Mitchell Kimball. The opulence of “Kimball’s Castle,” as the house was known, reflected Kimball’s position as a civic leader and benefactor. As the largest employer in Rochester, he took a keen interest in the humane treatment of his workers as well as in the comforts of life afforded by new technologies. He collected art and orchids, had an air-cooled wine cellar installed in his house, and a two-story stable with an elevator so that his carriages could be stored upstairs or down.

Unexceptional from the outside except for its size, his house was startling on the inside, thanks to Tiffany’s innovative ideas. Sadly little from it survives today, for like so many oversized personal monuments in ages of excess, the house was demolished for lack of funds to keep it up.

The Frenchman Jean Laurent Mosnier was a highly acclaimed painter in his lifetime, but is relatively unknown today. He was appointed painter to the queen to Marie Antoinette in 1776, but he fled France after the outbreak of the Revolution, worked in London from 1790 to 1796, and subsequently in Hamburg and Saint Petersburg. Illustrated here is one of the most ambitious of his English portraits, Lady Callander and Her Son James Kearney, recently given to the Yale Center for British Art. In it Mosnier has combined his French training and background with the tastes of his new British clientele. Balanced between neoclassicism and romanticism, the composition appears at once rigidly stable yet inherently fluid. The delicate treatment of fabrics and subtle use of light and shade are French, while the sentimentality of the image and such realistic details as the boy’s powdered wig shedding onto his otherwise immaculate uniform are English.

Exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1795, the portrait depicts Lady Callander (nee Margaret Romer) with James Kearney, her son by her first husband, Brydges Kearney (d. 1786). It was given to the Yale Center by the London firm Spink-Leger in honor of Brian Allen, director of studies at the Paul Mellon Centre in London, and his wife Katina Allen. Not only a rare example of the artist’s finest work, it is one of the few full-length portraits of a woman in the Yale Center’s collection.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Brant Publications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group