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Louis Comfort Tiffany’s deep passion for nature was evident throughout his life, from his youth, when as a young boy he preferred to sketch rather than complete schoolwork, to his last days, while painting at his Laurelton Hall estate on Long Island. Possessing an extensive knowledge of botany, Tiffany incorporated plants and trees of all types in an almost infinite variety of ornamental motifs. While many of his leaded shades invoked magnificently blossoming flowers, fruits were only occasionally portrayed. Grapes were the most common, used in both table lamps and chandeliers in a variety of shapes and sizes. Models depicting fruited apple and cherry trees were also produced. The ceiling fixture on offer is the only known shade that features oranges.
Tiffany probably first became acquainted with the fruit during his 1870 tour of Europe and North Africa with his friend and fellow painter, Robert Swain Gifford. During their visit to Sorrento, Italy, Gifford wrote to his family friend, Mrs. Lydia Swain: “It is a charming place – full of beautiful groves of olive and orange trees.".1 It was likely that Tiffany also saw countless orange trees when he and his family toured California for an extended period in early 1887. The fruit was introduced in the state in 1873, where it thrived under the ideal growing conditions. In addition, Tiffany was a sophisticated collector of Asian artifacts and was undoubtedly aware that the Japanese and Chinese associated oranges with good fortune.
Tiffany Studios, in this ceiling light, represented the fruit in all its glory. The massive oranges, some of them of lightly rippled and mottled glass, are acid-etched on the shade’s interior and exterior, subtly altering each of the orange’s opalescence and translucency, while also cleverly giving the impression of their slightly textured rinds. The plump, succulent fruit hang from yellow and amber-streaked brown branches among opalescent green-streaked leaves. All of this is rendered against a spectacular painterly background, some of it of foliage, or ‘confetti’ glass, other sections rippled or plated and shading from red-tinged blue, to turquoise to mauve to violet, that gives a sense of approaching dusk.
This magnificent shade is in all likelihood a unique piece, probably produced for a special commission that included two similarly shaped and designed ceiling lights, one with grapes and the other with lemons. It is an object to be treasured for its rarity, beauty and supreme artistry.
.1 Letter from Robert Swain Gifford to Mrs. Lydia Swain, November 19, 1870, New Bedford Whaling Museum Research Library