American Stained Glass Superiority in the Gilded Age

Part 1

There is a longstanding tradition of stained glass making in Europe which dates back to the fifth century. Thousands of windows were assembled by stained glass guilds who built magnificent commissions for churches and cathedrals across Europe. During the Gilded Age, however, American artists such as Louis Comfort Tiffany and John La Farge revolutionized stained glass as an art form. Their innovative practices elevated stained glass to an entirely new level. During this industrious period, many American artists produced exceptional work that surpassed their European predecessors in technique and variety. Our first exhibit, American Stained Glass Masters, will highlight…

 

• The differences between European techniques and American techniques for stained glass making

• Americans’ method of painting with glass, rather than painting on the glass

• Scientific advancements and chemical processes that allowed for the production of dazzling glass textures and colors

Holy Family's Flight into Egypt

American style

Gilbertson's Stained Glass, 2015-16

European vs American Stained Glass Windows

Hickinson Cartoon

Holy Family's Flight into Egypt

Cartoon by William T. Hickinson, circa 1920

Holy Family's Flight into Egypt

Holy Family's Flight into Egypt

European style

Gilbertson's Stained Glass, 2015-16

Holy Family's Flight into Egypt

Holy Family's Flight into Egypt

American style

Gilbertson's Stained Glass, 2015-16

EUROPEAN STAINED GLASS WINDOWS

The glowing splendor and immense size of stained glass windows often awe their viewers. During the Middle Ages, stained glass windows developed as a major art form. Artisans created magnificent windows for large cathedrals. The windows filled the churches with light and color, beautifying their interiors. These early windows often depicted biblical scenes or told the stories of saints, so they also served to teach Christian beliefs to the largely illiterate people. 


Why is it called stained glass? The term derives from the silver stain that was often applied to the back of the window. When the glass was fired, the silver stain turned a yellow that could range from lemon to gold. It was very useful in the highlighting of hair, haloes, and crowns. 


The artisans of the Middle Ages used pieces of colored glass joined together by strips of lead to form a picture or design. At the outset, they made a drawing of the picture or design to use as a template when assembling the window. The medieval artisans used antique glass. It was one-colored, translucent glass with no texture. They achieved the color of the glass by adding metallic oxides to the pot of molten glass. Cobalt oxide created blues; magnesium oxide created purple; and so forth. The molten glass was then blown and shaped into sheets. Pieces were cut from the sheets based on the overall window design. 


The artisan next painted the pieces of glass with black or brown paint to create details such as faces and draping in fabrics. The painted colors were then fused to the glass in a kiln. The painting created form and visual effects. The artist was as skilled as any creating a panel or fresco painting. Paint was originally used only for small details, but artisans increasingly used more paint. One negative effect was that less light passed through the painted surfaces, making the windows less brilliant. 


The same type of painted window was still being made in Europe in the late 19th century at the time of the development of the American School of Stained Glass. Although the American School artists came up with many new techniques and types of glass, the best European artisans were still creating windows with beautiful colors and many details using the same process that had been developed centuries ago. A case in point are the magnificently painted Mayer of Munich windows in our Collection.
 

AMERICAN STAINED GLASS WINDOWS

The innovative artists of the American Stained Glass Movement focused on using glass to create new effects not seen in European painted windows. They essentially painted with glass, that is, they used features of the glass itself as well as new techniques to achieve pictorial details.

They created new vividly colored glass and new types of textured glass. They invented drapery, confetti, and ridged glass, among others. They were the first to use faceted glass nuggets and pressed glass jewels. But the most important development was opalescent glass, which became a trademark of the American Movement. Opalescent glass included multiple colors in the same piece, suggesting highlights and shadows, muting bright light, and creating complimentary tones to adjacent colors. It allowed the artist to render realistic subjects relying on the effects within the glass rather than painting on the glass. Both La Farge and Tiffany claimed to have invented opalescent glass windows.

The use of multiple layers of glass was another major technological innovation that deepened colors and allowed for the creation of shadows and other effects without painting. This technique is called plating. The layers created depth of field and the suggestion of three-dimensions. Layering also enhanced the effects of sunlight shining through glass. Much smaller pieces of glass were used in American windows than in European ones. American artists sometimes layered small pieces of glass behind larger pieces to depict clothing and other details.

The size and positioning of leading took on new importance in the work of the American artists. For centuries, leading had played a functional role in stained glass windows—connecting the pieces of glass. In American windows, leading had an additional purpose—it also provided lines within the design. The American artists also used leading of various sizes. They did not always use straight lines of lead as had been done in the past. La Farge developed a technique of back-plating leading to create the impression of shadows.

Traditional leading was difficult to use for complex patterns requiring many small glass pieces. For such projects, American artists developed the copper foil technique. They wrapped the edges of glass pieces with a thin copper foil before the pieces were laid out and soldered together. This type of leading flowed with the design and helped create more organic landscapes.

The new types of glass and new techniques meant American artists did not have to rely on painting on glass to create details. Therefore, they limited painting primarily to faces, hands, and feet. They were thus able to create windows with a new and stunning appearance like those you see in our Collection.

A Closer Look

Detail of Holy Family's Flight into Egypt

European style

Gilbertson's Stained Glass, 2015-16

Detail of Holy Family's Flight into Egypt

American style

Gilbertson's Stained Glass, 2015-16

Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt Windows

GILBERTSON'S STAINED GLASS

• European-style window: extensive painting, single layer
• La Farge-style window: painting on faces, hands, and donkey; 2 to 5 layers
• 2015-2016

These two newly created windows are based on William Thomas Hickinson’s sketch of the Holy Family’s Flight into Egypt (circa 1920). The drawing includes lead lines, meaning it was intended as a design for a stained glass window. The sketch is presented to the left of the windows. 


The art glass here illustrates the difference between American- and European-style windows. The European-style window has heavily painted designs and a single layer of glass throughout. There are simple fields of color. And details such as the expression of love on the mother’s face have been expertly created with the lines of paint. The multilayer design of the American-style window reflects the style of John La Farge, an American artist. The American artists usually combined techniques. They used plating or layering, painting, and new types and colors of glass to create vibrant, richly detailed, three-dimensional windows like the lower one on display here.


The difference between the two windows is especially evident in the robes and wings. The European-style window features painting in these areas. In the American-style window, the artist used multiple small pieces and colors of glass along with layering on the front and back to create visual effects typical of those seen in La Farge windows. The halos in the American-style window consist of vivid yellow glass, while the ones in the European-style window have been mostly painted. Here again the difference between the two windows is distinct. Also, the sky and the groundcover are more bold and colorful in the American-style window. The new types and hues of glass as well as plating provide a more accurate depiction of nature. Overall, the European-style window lacks the complexity of the American-style window. However, in the past, intricate details could only be achieved in stained glass windows through painting. The two donkeys have been painted in a similar style. 


The Gospel of Matthew recounts the Flight into Egypt (2:13–15). Joseph flees to Egypt with Mary and the Infant Son after the Magi inform him that King Herod intends to kill Jesus.
 

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