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Vreeland takes the shade off a woman's art

By Eugenia Zukerman
Wednesday, January 12, 2011; C04

The beauty and opalescence of authentic Tiffany lamps have charmed people for more than a century. Until recently, it was believed that these creations were solely the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany, but in 2005, a group of art historians discovered that, in fact, the designer was a woman: Clara Driscoll. This revelation shook the art world and inspired the best-selling author Susan Vreeland to imagine the life and times of the spirited Mrs. Driscoll.

"In 1893 the name of Louis Comfort Tiffany will be on the lips of millions!" Louis brags to Clara in Vreeland's novel. He's a short man with a lisp and an Oedipal desire to outdo his father, the renowned jeweler. Wildly talented, deeply driven and self-indulgent, Louis is a leader of many contradictions - allowing Clara to expand her department of "Tiffany Girls," while refusing to hire married women; encouraging Clara's artistic creativity, while forbidding his own daughters a college education.

Set in New York City at the tumultuous turn of the 20th century, "Clara and Mr. Tiffany" is about art and commerce, love and duty. Peopled with characters both imagined and historic, it is also a study of New York's ultra-rich and desperate poor, its entitled men and its disenfranchised women. And it is the story of one extraordinary woman's passion and determination. As the book opens, Clara's husband has died, leaving her without any money; she rents a room in a boardinghouse and returns to Tiffany Studios, where she had been a valued employee before her marriage.

When she comes up with an idea for making lampshades of leaded glass, Tiffany's enthusiasm thrills her, until she realizes that he has appropriated her invention as his own. "The idea was mine!" she mourns. "The process is mine!" And yet, despite feeling betrayed, Clara will later say of her boss: "I adored him. He and I [were] artistic lovers, passionate without a touch of the flesh. He made me thrive."

The book brims with fascinating information about Tiffany's glassmaking and about New York as its gilded age gives way to a more progressive era. Clara stands at the story's center as a woman ahead of her time, a female artist who mentors others and demands equality. When, because of jealousy, the men of the Glaziers and Glass Cutters Union threaten a strike unless Tiffany shuts down the women's department, Clara leads her "girls" into the fray with Susan B. Anthony's words: "Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less." Vreeland's ability to make this complex historical novel as luminous as a Tiffany lamp is nothing less than remarkable.

bookworld@washpost.com Zukerman is a flutist, the author of four books, an arts administrator and the founder of ClassicalGenie.com.

CLARA AND MR. TIFFANY

By Susan Vreeland

Random House. 405 pp. $26

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