A trip to Richmond highlights Tiffany glass

Friday, April 30, 2010

WHY: World-class glass, angels on high and Tiffany on tour.

HOW FAR: About eight miles from start to finish, and about 100 miles from Washington.

There is glass, and then there is Tiffany glass.

Between the 1870s and 1920s, American artist Louis Comfort Tiffany elevated this somewhat utilitarian medium to high art, coaxing dimension and emotion from modest scraps and shards. In his hands, halos glowed and flowers blossomed.

Richmond, whose port traded heavily with Tiffany's home town of New York, boasts a surprisingly high concentration of his works given the capital's size. With the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts' new permanent galleries, which open Saturday, plus other public pieces around town, the city's holdings exceed those in Washington and elsewhere in Virginia.

In addition, this spring, Richmond puts the artist on a glass pedestal for the "Tiffany: Color and Light," held at the VMFA between May 29 and Aug. 15. About 170 items will be on display, demonstrating his strengths in stained glass, lamps and vases, as well as his forays into painting, mosaics and other decorative arts. The show has appeared in Paris and Montreal, but the Richmond museum, which contributed works from its own collection, is the sole U.S. stop. To stoke interest around the state, the museum created "Tiffany Windows of Virginia," an online listing of 20 sites, with a downloadable audio tour.

To be sure, Tiffany's creations pop up in everyday settings, including churches, historic homes, even the local cemetery. At Maymont Mansion, for example, one of his windows soars 15 feet high, basking nearly two floors in the serene glow of golden grapevines and azure skies. At Hollywood Cemetery, glass "gems" gleam in the Tiffany windows lining the mausoleum of cigarette magnate Lewis Ginter. And at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 10 Tiffany windows and a mosaic altarpiece bathe the space in ethereal blues and grays.

Encountering Tiffany's glasswork is an "almost religious experience," says VMFA director Alex Nyerges.

Such is the transcendent power of Tiffany.

-- Jenny Mayo

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