A pair of profiles of Tiffany which appeared in 1912 are noticeably consistent in the details they offer:
"Mr. Tiffany’s education has been entirely along the lines of art. He studied applied arts with the world-famous house of Tiffany and Co., of which family he is a member. The celebrated artist John LaFarge was his mentor in his study of color schemes, after which he took a course with Adrian Pottier in order to acquire a knowledge of all the details of decorative art which he would need in later years.and
After Mr. Tiffany had completed his studies along these lines he entered the warerooms of C.H. George so that he could study stuffs and fabrics, and then he went to Europe, where he acquired a thorough intimacy with rare tapestries and hangings, and a general knowledge of art that is possessed by few living Americans.
Subsequent to his return to America Mr. Tiffany took up the interior decoration of artistic homes, and some of the most beautiful homes in this county bear evidence of his artistic knowledge and ability.” 2
"[Tiffany’s] thorough knowledge of the applied and fine arts, rare stuffs, fabrics, and tapestries of mural decoration, has given him a reputation that has become international.But are those details accurate, or even probable? Could Tiffany have studied with LaFarge, studied with Pottier, and then worked for C.H. George in the space of perhaps 18 months – from October 1884 until May of 1886 – let alone spent “several years in… Europe”? The evidence strongly suggests that Tiffany’s European sojourn could not have occurred later than the first half of 1886. Absent any firm documentation of Tiffany’s travels, the timeline presented in the articles is certainly suspect… and there is little to bolster the remaining biographical detail.
One of a family to which the world of art is deeply indebted, it was but natural that he should early turn his thoughts toward all things beautiful, and as soon as he had completed his collegiate education, he took up the study of applied arts with Tiffany & Co. From there he went into the studio of John LaFarge to obtain a though knowledge of color schemes, after which he took a course with Adrian Pottier that he might possess that intimacy with the ideals of decorative art which would be needful in his future vocation. His further desire for an intimate knowledge of the beautiful took him to the warerooms of C. H. George so that he might study stuffs and rare fabrics, after which he spent several years in the great art centers of Europe, filling his brain with a knowledge of architectural decoration covering all periods; an intimacy with rare tapestries and hangings that is possessed by few and such a fund of new ideas as would only find a place in an active, artistic and enterprising brain. Returning to this country, Mr. Tiffany took up the interior decoration of artistic homes, and many of the finest residences owe their beauty to his rare talents.” 3
John LaFarge is perhaps best remembered today as a designer of stained glass windows, and as Louis Comfort Tiffany’s principle competitor and rival. 4 But LaFarge was also equally accomplished as artist, writer, and decorator. From 1880 until 1885, he was the Art Director of the LaFarge Decorative Arts Company, until the company collapsed under the weight of aesthetic disputes, legal actions and allegations of financial mismanagement. No records exist to show what employment Joseph Burr Tiffany may have had with the LaFarge Decorative Art Company. 5
An 1887 city directory gives the first hint of Tiffany’s nascent business, when he is listed as “pres. [president] 21 Spruce & decorator, 152 Fifth Avenue.” 6 Since 152 Fifth Avenue was also the address of the aforementioned firm C.H. George & Co., “Importers of Paper Hangings and Textile Fabrics. Furniture Makers and Decorators,” at least that part of the biography seems to be accurate. And perhaps Tiffany was in their employ after his European travels, rather than before.7
While the inconsistencies cannot be resolved with the limited information available, it seems certain that J.B. Tiffany spent this time preparing to launch his own company. While affiliations such as those mentioned in the 1912 articles would have been beneficial for the stated artistic reasons—training in color and decorative arts, hands on experience with materials—they would also have provided Tiffany with insight into three different types of decorating firms: the “boutique” artistic approach of LaFarge; the large scale, full service behemoth that was Pottier and Stymus; and the retailer-who-offers-custom-work, C.H. George. (to be continued)
1. Poutasse, Marianna. “Decorating a Hudson River Estate: Robert Bowne Suckley and Joseph Burr Tiffany at Wilderstein.” MA thesis Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts. 1995. p. 32. Tiffany is listed in Trow’s New York City Directory for 1886-1887 as “A decorator residing at West 152nd Street, north Boulevard.”
2. Music Trade Review, December 28, 1912
3. The National Magazine; An Illustrated American Monthly, June 19124. Poutasse, p.32. The directory was Trow’s New York City Directory for 1887-1888.
4. Sloan, Julie L. "The Rivalry Between Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge," Nineteenth Century, the Magazine of The Victorian Society in America, Fall, 1997.
5. Poutasse, p.40.
6. Ibid., p.32. The directory was Trow’s New York City Directory for 1887-1888.
7. Advertisements for C.H. George and Co. show that the company was located at 152 Fifth Avenue from mid-1883 through December 1887.
Mantelpiece, entrance hall of Cornelius Vanderbilt II House.
LaFarge was the interior decorator, and designed the mosaic frieze.
Vanderbilt Mantelpiece, ca. 1881–83
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (American, 1848–1907)
Marble, mosaic, oak, and cast iron
184 3/8 x 154 7/8 x 37 1/4 in. (468.3 x 393.4 x 94.6 cm)
Gift of Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt II, 1925 (25.234)
The Pottier & Stymus factory at Lexington Avenue and 42nd Street, New York City, circa 1872. Destroyed by fire on March 1, 1888. (From Tbe Successful Business Houses of New York.)
Ad for C.H. George & Co., from The Art Amateur; A Monthly Journal Devoted to Art in the Household. This ad ran from August through December, 1887.