|By Carole Deutsch
Between 1870 and 1885, Louis Comfort Tiffany switched his artistic interest from easel painting to aesthetic decorating and formed his various business partnerships. There has been much confusion among historians concerning Tiffany’s partnerships, when they began, when they ended, and what they exactly produced.
Historian Dr. Roberta A. Mayer has judiciously unraveled the mystery and was at Rago Arts in Lambertville, N.J., on March 19 to share the findings of her research in a lecture titled Untangling the Early Business Ventures of Louis Comfort Tiffany. The talk was held before a full house, with an audience eager to hear her speak on the results of her methodical investigation, which differ dramatically from the historically held conceptions.
Mayer began by exhibiting a page from a 1995 booklet, titled Mark Twain’s House. The subject of the booklet was intended to be a brief history of the Associated Artists, comprised of Louis Comfort Tiffany, Lockwood de Forest, Candace Wheeler, and Samuel Colman, and recorded that in 1881 they were commissioned to decorate the Hartford, Connecticut house of Samuel Langhorne Clemens (Mark Twain). This was not new information in 1995, but rather a synopsis of information gathered decades earlier by Tiffany scholar Robert Koch. Koch completed his doctoral dissertation on Tiffany at Yale in 1957, and in 1958 curated a landmark exhibition of Louis Comfort Tiffany’s work at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in New York.
According to Koch and other learned historians, Tiffany, de Forest, Wheeler, and Colman established a joint business venture in 1879 under the name Associated Artists. Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933) began his artistic career as a painter and expanded into textiles, pottery, metalwork, and furniture, becoming one of the foremost decorative artists of the late-nineteenth century, and is renowned for his innovative approaches to the manufacture and use of glass.
Lockwood de Forest (1850 – 1932) was a key figure of the American Aesthetic Movement, who had an interest in architectural woodworking and introduced the East Indian craft revival to America. Candace Wheeler (1827–1923) was one of America’s first woman interior and textile designers, and Samuel Colman (1832–1920) was an American painter, interior designer, and writer, who is best known for his Hudson River paintings.
At the time of the Associated Artists collaboration, Tiffany was 31 years old, de Forest was 29, Wheeler was 52, and Colman was 47. Koch contended that the company operated as Louis C Tiffany at Associated Artists, with an emphasis on the latter. However, after many successful projects, including a redecoration of many rooms at the White House, the highly successful company simply disbanded in 1883.
Many subsequent researchers have speculated on why the overtly successful Associated Artists would simply cease to exist after only four years of operation, without even a notation as to the reason, but over these many years no explanation has been found. Some have speculated that differences among the principals led to the break-up. This supposition raises more questions than answers, and is especially confounding, because after the Associated Artists years these same talented artists go on to work together as colleagues and friends in separate business ventures and prestigious projects.
Mayer became interested in the topic while researching Lockwood de Forest. She assumed the history was accurate and well understood and did not expect to find anything new.
It came as a great surprise to her when her research inadvertently revealed that de Forest, Wheeler, Colman, and Tiffany had never established a unified decorating firm under the name of Associated Artists, not in 1879, not ever. As a result there was never a dramatic breakup. The well accepted history from credible sources is, in fact, an incorrect assumption.
Tiffany did have several early business relationships, including individual contracts with Wheeler and de Forest, as well as a plan for consolidation that did not occur. The source of the inaccuracy originated from the writings of Candace Wheeler.
Koch and other writers relied on Candace Wheeler’s writings in her own autobiography, “Yesterdays in a Busy Life”, which has long been a valued source for understanding Tiffany’s early career. Published in 1918, the book includes an entire chapter on “The Associated Artists,” in which Candace Wheeler specifically stated that the firm of Louis C Tiffany & Co. was known equally as the Associated Artists. Wheeler also elaborated that within the partnership Tiffany was responsible for the overall commissions and use of glass, while she managed the textiles and the embroidery. De Forest provided the woodwork from India, and Colman specialized in the color and design of ornamental patterns. Wheeler emphasized that they all had different skills and interest, but she also wrote that the associates acquiesced to her suggestion that they be called the “Associated Artists,” instead of Louis C. Tiffany, and went on to say that “it was of course Louis C Tiffany & Co, but it was easily an “Association of Artists,” and we agreed to work together under that name.”
Wheeler’s implication that there was an actual single firm was founded on the basis of loose verbal agreement among the four colleagues. Wheeler apparently liked the egalitarian significance of the “Associated Artists.” Early researchers, including Koch, were eager to rely on Wheeler’s account because she provided firsthand information, or so it would appear. However, while there is no documentation as to the existence of the Associated Artists as an actual company, there is factual supporting evidence that it never, in actuality, existed, except in Wheeler’s perception.
Credit reports from R.G. Dun & Co., which is now part of the Harvard Business School, made it apparent that the early history had to be revised, since the records contradicted the earlier reports. Louis Comfort Tiffany was the son of Charles L Tiffany, founder of Tiffany & Co. Jewelers. He was an entrepreneur, as well as an artist, and as such, engaged in proper business practices and accurate accounting. R.G. Dun & Co. tracked the business activity for LC Tiffany and partners as it unfolded on a year by year basis and their business ledgers recorded four companies under his name; Louis C Tiffany, an independent decorator, 1878; Tiffany & Wheeler, 1880; LC Tiffany & Co. 1881; and Tiffany & de Forest in 1880. Colman’s name does not appear in any of the records. The R.G. Dun records were compiled at the time of Tiffany’s business ventures, and not in retrospect, which adds to the weight of their accuracy. In addition, the information is corroborated by other documents, business contracts, and journals cataloged at the time. The Lockwood de Forest papers at the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., as well as those found at the Hagley Museum and Library, Wilmington, Del., also support the R.G. Dun records.
All this documentation led Mayer to the conclusion that the four were never joint partners in any one firm. Initially, Tiffany secured his own commissions and then established two separate ventures, one with Candace Wheeler, and another with Lockwood de Forest. His contract with Wheeler did evolve into a firm, named Louis C Tiffany & Co Associated Artists in 1881, but de Forest and Colman were not part of that business. De Forest was in India for that entire year, and Colman was one of Tiffany’s many subcontractors, not a business partner. Samuel Colman was Tiffany’s art instructor and mentor, and the two remained close throughout their lifetimes. Their associations were more personal than business oriented.