One day in the middle of the 1870s, a young glassmaker named Louis Comfort Tiffany visited John La Farge in his studio. La Farge was figuring out how to make stained glass as radiant as the windows at Chartres, and Tiffany wanted to know how he did it.
La Farge showed Tiffany his experiments with putting thin plates of glass together and with opalescent glass. He would come to regret his generosity.
Tiffany took what La Farge showed him and ran with it. They became arch-rivals, leaders in their field of stained glass. La Farge, wrote his friend Henry Adams, ‘seemed bent on crushing all rivalry.’
Today, Tiffany is a household word. La Farge is pretty much forgotten, though his work still radiates in churches and museums throughout New England.
Tiffany vs. La Farge
They became bitter rivals, despite, or perhaps because of, their similarities. Both came from wealthy, cosmopolitan families in New York City and studied painting early in their careers. They pioneered similar techniques in the burgeoning field of decorative arts and stood at the top of their field. Both made stained glass windows for wealthy and institutional patrons – the Vanderbilt houses, Harvard, Yale, Trinity Church in Boston, the White House. Both even had eight children.
But there were some differences between them that may explain why the younger Tiffany eventually eclipsed La Farge. Tiffany’s father was Charles Lewis Tiffany, who started the world-famous Tiffany & Co. Sharing the name of a widely known retail establishment helped perpetuate his fame as a glassmaker. Tiffany’s studio also made smaller objects, now collector’s items, which keeps Tiffany’s name before the public.
Or perhaps the difference was this: Tiffany was the better, and possibly more ruthless, businessman.
The Decorative Arts
John La Farge and Louis Tiffany both trained as painters, but the Gilded Age appetite for opulent decoration lured them away from the easel. Tiffany once wrote, “I believe there is more in it [the decorative arts] than in painting pictures.”
La Farge visited England in 1873, and met Pre-Raphaelite artists who wanted to revive medieval principles in art. Stained glass making was in a sorry state, as people just didn’t know how to recreate the rich, subtle color and luminescence of medieval stained glass.
So when La Farge returned to America, Harvard’s Class of 1844 wanted him to design a stained glass window to remember the Civil War dead. La Farge figured out how to use layers of glass using complementary colors rather than just painting on glass, the current practice. The radiant, jewel-like Chevalier Bayard window in Memorial Hall was well received.
La Farge continued to perfect his technique. After he showed Tiffany how he did it, his willingness to help the younger man soon faded. By 1879 La Farge called Tiffany a “knave” for stealing his ideas.
By 1880, Tiffany and La Farge were riding high. They had no rivals, except for each other. Tiffany won a commission to decorate Mark Twain’s house in Hartford in 1880, followed by one in 1882 from President Chester A. Arthur to redecorate the White House. The interior design, of course, included Tiffany glass.
La Farge created a stained-glass window around 1880 for the Newport, R.I., home of Henry Gurdon Marquand, later president of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston displayed the window, called Peonies Blown in the Wind. Glass commissions then came rolling in, and he set up a studio in New York’s West Village with specially trained glass workers. He also created murals and stained glass windows for H.H. Richardson’s masterpiece, Boston’s Trinity Church, from 1876 to 1888.
On Feb. 24, 1880, La Farge got a patent for the glass he used in his windows. Nearly a year later, on Feb. 8, 1881, Tiffany also got a patent for making stained-glass windows.
Glass conservator Julie L. Sloan of North Adams, Mass., explains: “La Farge’s patent was for the use of the material, while Tiffany’s was for its assembly. Both patents were important in theory: without permission to use La Farge’s, Tiffany’s was not possible, but without permission to use Tiffany’s, La Farge could not assemble windows of opalescent glass.”
Something, apparently, happened between the granting of the two patents. La Farge explained it 20 years later, writes Sloan. Charles L. Tiffany, the glassmaker’s father, proposed a business partnership between La Farge and his son. They would make stained glass together under La Farge’s patent. But Tiffany’s son was ill and traveling in Europe, so could La Farge give him unofficial permission to create glass under his patent” asked the father. At least “until the partnership could be perfected.”
La Farge gave him the information. Instead of a business partnership, Louis Tiffany applied for his own patent, the one he got in February 1881.
To add insult to injury, Tiffany made a deal with one glassmaker to only sell to him. Since only a few glassmakers could produce the kind of glass both Tiffany and La Farge needed, the deal deprived La Farge of a much-need supplier for his burgeoning commissions.
Downhill Without Tiffany
Then things got worse for La Farge.
Without the promised Tiffany backing, he needed working capital. So he took on a partner in 1882. Then he took on two more partners. They soon fought over spending and artistic control.
In 1887, Frederick Lothrop Ames commissioned La Farge to make a window memorializing his sister, Helen Angier Ames, for the Unity Church. It proved his undoing. Ames paid $10,000 for the window, about a quarter of a million dollars today. La Farge’s partners thought he spent too much money on the project and tried to take artistic control of the window. La Farge hid the designs for the work, and his partners had him arrested in his studio.
The scandal made the front page of every New York newspaper. Ames canceled the commission and La Farge’s company went bankrupt. Though the charges against La Farge were dropped, he took a trip to Japan to escape his disgrace. Ames in the end hired La Farge back, and he finished the window in 1887.
Tiffany, too, had his troubles. His wife Mary Goddard died in 1884, and the next year he lost thousands of dollars in a failed investment.
War of Words
Early on, the press recognized La Farge as the innovator in using opalescent glass. But then Tiffany waged a PR campaign in which a close friend wrote an article claiming Tiffany invented the technique.
Then in 1889, the French awarded La Farge the ribbon of the Legion of Honor for a series of his stained glass windows at the Paris Exposition Universelle. He was called “the great innovator, the inventor of opaline glass” and credited with creating “an art unknown before, an entirely new industry.”
That no doubt galled Tiffany. Not coincidentally, an article soon appeared claiming “the idea is due to Mr. Tiffany.”
Tiffany further retaliated by exhibiting his stained glass at the World Columbian Exhibition in Chicago in 1893 – the only glass exhibitor at the giant fair. He wrote an article, American Art Supreme in Colored Glass, crediting mostly himself.
La Farge fired back with a privately published article. He pointed out the only reason Tiffany showed his work was that his father’s jewelry store had exhibit space. Then he took a shot at Tiffany, saying that “commercialism” created mediocrity in colored glass.
La Farge never recovered fully from his ignominious arrest and business failure. He didn’t try to run a company again, but he accepted stained-glass commissions from his patrons. He continued mastering his craft to the point where his stained glass windows rivaled paintings. He wanted to create masterpieces along the lines of the Old Master painters.
In 1908, he finished Peacock, “a window far finer in some ways than I have ever done,” he wrote. He made it on spec and called it ‘too dear to buy.’ It’s now in the Worcester Art Museum.
He also traveled to Japan and the South Seas with Henry Adams. He put on one-man shows and sold watercolors. With his old friend Henry Adams he traveled to the Far East and the South Seas, and wrote and illustrated travelogues about his journeys.
His lavish spending and business ineptitude dogged him, though, and he died deeply in debt in 1908 in a Providence insane asylum.
Tiffany, on the other hand, prospered. He established his own glassmaking firm, Tiffany Studios, which made thousands of stained glass windows. Adams called it “a concern as big as the national post office.” He died in 1933.
Is there a La Farge in your town? Find out here.
With thanks to John La Farge, A Biographical and Critical Study, by James Yarnall; Art of an Opaline Mind: The Stained Glass of John La Farge by Julie L. Sloan and James Yarnall; and The Rivalry Between Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge by Julie L. Sloan.
Image: John the Baptist at Arlington Street Church in Boston By John Stephen Dwyer, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13498050. This story was updated in 2023.