A few years ago, like practically everyone else, I read Girl with a Pearl Earring, watched the movie, and ended up on sort of a Vermeer kick. As part of that, I read a second novel, The Girl in Hyacinth Blue, by the author Susan Vreeland. I was quite impressed. Now I’ve listened to a second Vreeland novel as an audio book.
Clara and Mr. Tiffany is a fictional novel based on fairly recently discovered information about the work and studio of Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Tiffany of the stained glass windows and the lamps, son of the Tiffany of the jewelry store.` A 2007 museum exhibit, inspired in part by the letters of Clara Driscoll, cast a new light on who exactly did what in Mr. Tiffany’s studio. This book does a wonderful job of portraying the kind of life a working woman would have led in the New York City of the late 1800s into the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The city itself and its growth is described—its politics, its economics, its middle-class society (unlike Edith Wharton’s New York), its architecture, its strengths and deficiencies.
At the time when the middle class was becoming increasingly important, the decorative arts were a way that people “on the way up” who did not possess great fortunes could enjoy a taste of fine art. Just as the characters in the book can enjoy the opera even if they have to resort to the standing room section, an upper middle class woman could enjoy having a small Tiffany lamp on her dressing table.
The movement also embraced technology. The Dragonfly lamp above was an oil lamp; the wisteria lamp is electric. Notice how technology affected the design of the base. Supposedly, Tiffany consulted with the expert--Thomas Edison himself—and Edison expressed the opinion that the colored shades would be just the thing to moderate the harshness of incandescent light. One wonders what Tiffany would do with the compact daylight fluorescent!
A prominent theme in the novel is the role of women in society. Ironically, in an age when the issue of Women’s Suffrage had not yet been settled, it is the economic right of women to work and to work for a decent wage, in spite of opposition by the labor unions, that takes center stage.
Finally, the novel deals with a philosophical question: In the whole scope of a person’s life, exactly how important is art or one’s career as an artist? That's an old question, the same one Tennyson asked in "The Lady of Shalott." Finding a balanced answer to this question is a struggle for Tiffany himself and for Clara Driscoll.