When visitors come, what do you take them to see? When a friend showed us The Dream Garden in the Curtis Center in Philadelphia, it felt like a secret treasure unveiled. Dream Garden is a 15″ x 49″ glass mosaic, a collaborative venture between Louis Comfort Tiffany and Maxfield Parrish, completed in 1915. Edward Bok, who commissioned the mosaic, called Dream Garden a “wonderpiece, far exceeding the utmost expression of paint on canvas.”
Curtis Publishing Company editor Edward Bok knew Parrish through his illustration work. Bok had seen Tiffany’s glass curtain, created in 1911 for the National Theatre in Mexico City, and envisioned a Tiffany mosaic in the entrance of the new Curtis building. He remembered a conversation with Parrish about his dream garden and commissioned Parrish to create a sketch for Tiffany, the world’s foremost industrial artist.
Yale professor Theodore Sizer compared Tiffany to a “quattrocento artist” in Robert Koch’s seminal book Louis C. Tiffany, Rebel in Glass. Tiffany (son of Charles Tiffany who founded the famous store) was an artist, educator, philanthropist, entrepreneur, scientist, jeweler, interior decorator, and more, who created paintings, lamps, jewelry, art glass, windows, textiles, furniture, tombstones, and again, much more.
Tiffany began his career as “one of the better-known American painters,” according to Hugh McKean in The “Lost” Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany. A zest for exploration led Tiffany to interior decoration where he created entire rooms, including stained glass windows, for wealthy New York clients. Orders for stained glass began pouring in.
Born in 1848, Tiffany went to Europe in the 1860s, and was thrilled by both ancient and modern Arts and Crafts stained glass windows. He wanted to make stained glass using only colored glass to create designs, without paint, etching, or enameling. He experimented prodigiously with chemical and physical techniques to produce new colors, effects, textures, and surface finishes. According to Judith Miller in Arts & Crafts, Tiffany created more than 5,000 new types of glass. Among these was a unique type of iridescent glass that he called Favrile, from an Old English word, fabrile, or handcrafted.
If timing is everything, Tiffany had it all. He was born to wealthy parents who employed artisans in their business, traveled in Europe when Arts and Crafts, and later Art Nouveau, piqued his creativity, returned to New York with new stained glass techniques as religious fervor and church building raged, and was ready with glass lamps when electricity became widely available. According to Couldrey, he lost more commissions due to high prices than for any other reason.
Tiffany designed windows, but also executed windows designed by other artists. After his prize-winning window The Four Seasons was exhibited in Paris, Tiffany was invited by art dealer Samuel Bing to create 10 windows with French artists, including Bonnard and Toulouse-Lautrec. Bing’s shop “Maison de l”art Nouveau,” opened in Paris in 1895, putting Tiffany “center stage of the Art Nouveau scene” according to Couldrey.
After the turn of the century, Koch says, Tiffany’s name began to be associated with art glass even more than with stained glass or mosaic. According to Couldrey, “his place as an artist is upheld by his Favrile vases at their best.”
By 1902 Tiffany had a well-established business and could focus on large-scale projects. Dream Garden was his last huge mosaic, requiring over a million pieces of glass and the services of 30 of the most skilled artisans for a year, according to Koch. Tiffany was inordinately proud of Dream Garden. Kim Sajet of the Pennsylvania Academy wrote, “Tiffany spoke of having created a ‘practically new art” for the benefit of mankind and, moreover, of having ‘improved” upon Parrish’s original design to reveal the “real significance of [the] picture.”
Tiffany needed his strong ego during the years before he died in 1933. By the 1920s his work was passé. It was derided during the “30s and “40s. By the late “40s, a few collectors and curators began to show interest again. Koch wrote his doctoral dissertation on Tiffany in 1957 and bought a favrile vase for $4. It would now be worth at least $1,000.
Prices doubled from the “50s to 1966, according to Couldrey, as interest in Art Nouveau resurged. A lamp that sold for 155£ in 1967 went for 340£ in 1970. From there, the price curve steepened even more sharply. In 1994 a “Lotus” lamp sold privately for a record $4.6 million in Japan according to Bob Brooke in the online Antiques Almanac.
Thanks to Steve Wynn, we have a price for Dream Garden as a “historic object.” In 1998 casino owner Wynn wanted to buy Dream Garden and take it home to Las Vegas, resulting in tremendous protest from the Historical Commission of Philadelphia and others. In the Philadelphia Inquirer, Stephan Salisbury wrote, “He (Wynn) told his friend, then-Mayor Ed Rendell, that Philadelphia should have what it wanted so badly.
“Rendell promptly nominated Dream Garden to become the city’s first certified “historic object.” Ultimately, after that designation and much litigation, the Pew Charitable Trusts stepped in with $3.5 million, allowing the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts to acquire the mosaic.”
Now we are the lucky ones. You”ll find Dream Garden at 601 Walnut Street. Enter from Seventh between Sansom and Walnut and be dazzled.