ESSAY: Stained Glass Stories: Women, Art, and Labor

One of the Delaware Art Museum’s most striking works in the British Pre-Raphaelite galleries was actually designed and produced by Americans: our Tiffany stained-glass Spring and Autumn window set. The Spring and Autumn windows were commissioned by Samuel Bancroft, whose collection forms the core of the Museum’s Pre-Raphaelite holdings. In the early 1890s, Bancroft expanded his home in order to better hold and display his growing collection of Pre-Raphaelite art. The Philadelphia architect Frank Miles Day was employed to design the structure, and a significant portion of the decorative scheme was carried out by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company. While Tiffany Studios glasswork has been associated with the vision of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the owner and main artistic designer of the company, the Spring and Autumn windows were actually designed by one of the many women he employed over the course of his career: Lydia Field Emmet (1866-1952).

Image: Spring and Autumn, c. 1892. Lydia Field Emmet (designer, 1866-1952) for Tiffany Studios Leaded glass, 37 × 51 1/2 inches. Delaware Art Museum, Samuel and Mary R. Bancroft Memorial, 1935.

Behind every great man is a woman, as the saying goes, and behind the success of Tiffany are numerous women whose artistic skills and business acumen helped his company in all its iterations earn great acclaim and popularity. Early in his career, Tiffany launched a business with textile designer Candace Wheeler, before becoming head of design at his father’s firm, Tiffany and Co. The history of women artists at the turn of the 20th century was also connected to the popularity of the Arts and Crafts Movement, with which Tiffany Studios was associated both artistically and politically, and to the American decorative arts industry in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In turn, women artists entering the workforce and the Arts and Crafts movement were also influenced by developments in organized labor in the United States, meaning these three concepts are all intertwined.

At the company’s height in the late 1890s, Tiffany employed some 40-50 women in a special glass-cutting division. Tiffany’s desire to hire so many women may have been a testament to what one writer called his “progressive spirit.” The popularly-held view that women had a better sense for decoration and took direction better than their male counterparts was also a factor, as were their status as non-unionized workers. The Women’s Glass Cutting Department was established in 1892 and was responsible for the production of some of Tiffany’s most successful and delightful lamps and window patterns. Led by the indomitable Clara Driscoll and her strong sense of design, the department originated the “Dragonfly,” “Wisteria,” and “Butterfly” lampshades, among other notable Tiffany glass products. It’s not known for certain whether Lydia Field Emmet was considered one of Driscoll’s so-called “Tiffany Girls,” but she became known as an artist and art worker in her own right, as well as a part of the Tiffany legacy.

Aside from designing stained glass windows like Spring and Autumn, Emmet exhibited oil paintings, designed wallpaper, illustrated articles for Harper’s Weekly, taught painting at the Shinnecock Summer School of Art, and even created murals for the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Many of Tiffany’s female workers, including Emmet, arguably exemplified the promise of the critic and progressive reformer John Ruskin’s conception of the “Unity of Art,” excelling in multiple disciplines and blurring the lines between creating fine art and craft.

During Ruskin’s era, the Industrial Revolution changed the nature of work and employment in major cities, replacing manual labor with rapid machine production of all sorts of goods. In response, the Arts and Crafts movement (led by William Morris in Britain) sought to reinvigorate the role of the artist and artisan in everyday life, and in so doing, improve the conditions of workers and of society as a whole. In the pursuit of pure profit, these theorists argued, creative labor was discouraged and devalued, its dignity lessened; mass-produced objects honored neither the skills of the worker nor the pursuit of beauty.

John Ruskin (who starred in DAM’s Wyeth/Ruskin show a few years ago), “felt that society should work toward promoting the happiness and well-being of every one of its members, by creating a union of art and labour in the service of society.” In other words: instead of working repetitive, menial, even dangerous manufacturing jobs and being paid a pittance for them, workers should be given the opportunity to manufacture items with the full force of their creativity and skill behind them, and should be fairly and justly compensated for doing so. Ruskin’s Unity of Art model disregarded hierarchies among what we consider today “fine art”—painting, sculpture, architecture—and “decorative arts” or “crafts”—embroidery, illustration, glasswork, pottery, textiles, and other media. Artists and artisans were both equal in Ruskin’s mind as creators of beauty and meaning.

The Arts and Crafts movement in Britain and the United States thus combined issues important to artists, craftsmen, and organized labor in opposition to industrial capitalism. Progressives of all social classes therefore had a stake in the game: the Unity of Art espoused respect for labor as significant and creative, and touted art work as a form of labor that should be properly compensated. Women artists and art workers in cities like New York thrived under the Unity of Art ideal, and worked in numerous industries and media, creating everything from magazine illustrations to paintings for exhibition halls.

The “Tiffany Girls,” therefore, represent a partial success of the Unity of Art, and of women’s growing recognition as artists and art workers at the turn of the century. However, while the proliferation of women artists in professional employment represented a victory for these women, it came at a cost for other members of society, and for the labor movement as a whole. Labor unions, responsible for the establishment of such now-commonplace workplace concepts as the weekend and the eight-hour day, did not generally accept women among their ranks. Therefore, women were often hired at firms like Tiffany as strike-breakers, and they were paid less than their unionized male counterparts. So while Tiffany hiring women in his glass department may have been influenced by the changing view of women’s capabilities and value outside the domestic sphere, it also allowed Tiffany to use them as a cudgel against labor unions demanding fairer wages and working hours. (To this day, women are still less likely to be unionized than their male counterparts.)

The Unity of Art ideal allowed Lydia Field Emmet to make a career as an artist and an art worker, but its popularity as a scheme for incorporating art into larger societal ideals did not last. Replaced in esteem by the concept of “Art for Art’s Sake,” which placed a premium on art “[capable] of producing pleasurable impressions in the viewer” (Masten 245), the mindset that had allowed Emmet to both paint murals and design wallpaper fell out of vogue, with commercial arts industries knocked down a peg on the ladder of prestige. Indeed, ideas about how labor should be compensated, how the creation of art should be compensated, and indeed, whether art work is a form of labor, continue to be furiously debated and negotiated to this day.

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