Rare Lobster & Crab Enameled Box
By Martin Eidelberg
This spectacular one-of-a-kind enameled box brings together two of the chief aspects of Louis C. Tiffany’s art—his love of color and his love of nature. Japanophile that he was, Tiffany embraced the beauty of the meadow and forest, and found equal beauty in the wonders of sea life. What other American decorative artist could find inspiration in the strange form of a lobster with its prehistoric-looking shell armor, its long antenna, and tiny spherical eyes? Those eyes suggest a sparkling personality, much as in a Japanese ukiyo-e print. As it attacks the crab, it curls into a spherical composition much like an ivory netsuke where the separate parts are joined in a complex visual puzzle. Such allusions to Japanese art are pertinent. One of the artists in the enameling department remembered how Tiffany carried an inro, a Japanese sword guard, in one of the pockets of his waistcoat, and took it out to demonstrate to his staff how they should soften their edges to create organic, pleasing forms.
Although we speak of Tiffany and his art, we should also mention the women who constituted the staff of the enamel department: Alice Gouvy, Lillian Palmié, and Julia Munson. Able lieutenants, they accurately conveyed Tiffany’s vision and, moreover, Tiffany regularly visited and supervised the enamel workshop in Corona, Long Island.
This spectacular one-of-a-kind enameled box brings together two of the chief aspects of Louis C. Tiffany’s art—his love of color and his love of nature.
The sonorous deep blues and greens of this enameled box announce Tiffany’s characteristic palette. If the lobster shells are naturally green, here they are rendered as piercing emerald green. In 1902 Samuel Howe, Tiffany’s unofficial publicist, described how one day Tiffany and his associates compared some of the newly created enamels with unmounted gem stones such as lapis lazuli, star sapphires, topaz, Mexican opals, Siberian amethysts, and other precious minerals. Their judgment was that “the enamels—especially the blues and intense greens—showed much more depth and perspective than were found in the stones.” These words could easily have been said about this covered box. The depth and intense color reveal the essence of Tiffany’s art. His palette surpasses nature.
In the late 1890s, when Tiffany began to work with enamels, the experiments were carried out in the small personal workshop that Tiffany maintained in the attic of his Manhattan home on East 72nd Street and Madison Avenue. We have no testimonials or documents to throw light on Tiffany’s intentions but we can reconstruct something of what may have lain behind Tiffany’s motives.
A decade earlier, Tiffany’s reputation as a decorative artist rested essentially on his achievements as a manufacturer of leaded windows. Then in the early 1890s he erected his own glass house and developed a department of blown glass. Still later in that decade, as his horizons expanded further, his firm began to produce floor and desk lamps. It was at this fertile moment that experiments with enamels were undertaken. This should be seen as a continuation of work already underway, since the art of enamels is closely allied to glass, and metal wares had become a major portion of Tiffany Studios’ operation with the opening of a bronze foundry in Corona. Tiffany employed Arthur J. Nash, whose skills as a chemist helped him achieve the desired depth of color and perfection of material. Prior to 1900, Tiffany did not exhibit enamels—not at the Paris salons nor at Bing’s Art Nouveau exhibitions. The enamels did not make their first public appearance until the Paris World’s Fair of 1900, which marks the beginning of the enamel department’s successful operation. This covered box was made just a few years later, especially since the cursive monogram on the underside was not introduced until 1905.
The depth and intense color reveal the essence of Tiffany’s art. His palette surpasses nature.
Many of the first covered boxes were geometrical in form with enamels applied as surface decoration. It required another few years until the studio had evolved to such exciting organic forms. The designs were first worked out in watercolor renderings, and then hammered out against a felt cushion. Then the enamels were applied and fired in the studio. If iridescence was desired, the objects were then carried across the road to the glass factory, where a workman exposed them to acid fumes. Unlike other departments at Tiffany Studios where expenses were carefully monitored, Tiffany saw the enameling and pottery departments as his personal atelier and few financial restraints were imposed. Instead, he encouraged his staff to focus on creating beautiful objets d’art.