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. 

The Charles Lewis Tiffany residence, East 72nd Street and Madison Avenue where Tiffany worked on enamels in his attic workshop.

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.

Louis Comfort Tiffany 1848–1933

Louis Comfort Tiffany, artist, innovator, and pioneer of form and color, was born in New York City in 1848.

The son of celebrated jeweler and founder of Tiffany & Co., Charles Tiffany, Louis C. Tiffany began his career as a painter in the late 1860s studying under a series of masters including George Inness and Samuel Colman. In the mid-1870s, he turned his attention away from painting and toward the family business of decorative arts and interior design. He built a strong reputation with his exemplary work, even taking part in the 1882 redecoration of the White House.

Despite being highly regarded for his interior design work, Tiffany found he was increasingly drawn to the production of art glass, working for several glass manufacturers from 1875-1878 and honing his skills in the medium that would ultimately bring him the greatest recognition. In 1881, he filed his first patent in glass production, pioneering a new method in glass-tiled mosaic design. Tiffany continued to develop his craft and, in 1885, opened an affiliated interior design company, Tiffany Glass Company, which later changed its name to Tiffany Studios. This new company specialized in the design of private interiors and public spaces, working with numerous clients including Louisine and Henry Osborne Havemeyer and the Art Institute of Chicago.

In 1892, Tiffany received a patent for a new technique in glass production that would establish his place in art glass history: Favrile blown glass. Favrile glass is created by treating molten glass with metallic oxides in order to create a colored glass. Before the invention of Favrile glass, iridescent art glass was created by simply applying color, in the form of paint or enamel, over a piece of colorless glass. Tiffany displayed his Favrile glass at the 1900 Paris Exhibition where it won the Grand Prize.

In 1898, Tiffany Studios began manufacturing lighting fixtures and lamps. A year later, Tiffany added enamelwork to his firm’s repertoire, and later, ceramics. He continued to advance the use of Favrile glass, designing glass mosaics for use in interior settings, innovating as he did with new techniques of modeling, shading, and cutting. Upon his father's death in 1902, Tiffany assumed the roles of Vice-president and Art Director of Tiffany & Co. He watched the company’s bottom line fastidiously, ending production of any item that went unsold for one year.

No amount of careful accounting could safeguard Tiffany Studios against the shift in public taste during the 1920s. The scrolls and natural curves so integral to Tiffany’s designs gave way to the right angles of Modernism. Tiffany Studios declared bankruptcy in 1932. Louis C. Tiffany died a year later, personally bankrupt and in relative obscurity. That obscurity was not to last; scholars rediscovered Tiffany’s work in the 1950s, followed by the art market a decade later.

Today, works by Louis Comfort Tiffany and Tiffany Studios are highly sought after in the modern art market, with collectors valuing them for their high production quality, intricate and nature-inspired designs, and stunning use of colored glass.