She was artistic, ambitious, smart, creative, independent, and Tiffany lamps might never have been created if not for her. Clara and Mr. Tiffany by Susan Vreeland is the fictionalized account of the real life Clara Driscoll, the woman credited with creating the first Tiffany lamps.
This book is a fascinating look at a highly successful, highly innovative art studio with all of its jealousies, power struggles and financial bickering. The setting, New York City during the Gilded Age, provides a colorful backdrop of artistic, economic, and industrial development existing alongside immigrant tenement squalor. Clara is also a study in the women’s rights movement at the turn of the 20th century.
Having recently been widowed, Clara turns to her former employer, Louis Comfort Tiffany, for work. With her talents and skills, he welcomes her with open arms, but for Clara it is with both excitement and anger that she comes back to the studio. The exhilaration of once again working with an artistic genius pulls her into his studio. However, she resents that she was forced to leave when she married, for Tiffany would not allow married women to work in his studio.
Tiffany, Clara, and the other glass designers played a prominent role in the Aesthetic Movement. But where the fine arts produced “art for art’s sake” during this period, the decorative arts still were bound to utility and practical applications, a tough pill for Tiffany to swallow.
There was a constant struggle for control between Tiffany’s and Clara’s vision of art and the financial managers of the studio – or more accurately stated, the company. Tiffany glass was, after all, a business. As talented as Tiffany was, he could not avoid the practical necessity of having his work accessible to more than just the wealthy industrial tycoons of the day.
To compound issues, labor unions had gained a strong foothold in industry, including artistic shops. Unfortunately, unions did not allow women to be members, so rather than helping women’s status, the Lead Glaziers and Glass Cutters’ Union worked against Clara and the women she supervised. Jealous of the women’s department’s success, the union employed strong tactics, including going on strike, to try to ouster all women from Tiffany’s shop.
The fight between art and money is an important theme Clara and Mr. Tiffany, as is the role of women in society, but Clara’s active social and romantic life carries the story. I was intrigued with the boardinghouse in which she lived. All of the other tenants also work in the arts, which provides an additional glimpse into the Aesthetic movement. I enjoyed the characters’ nightly poetry readings, dramatizations, and discussions.
Clara – with her sharp intellect, self-assured ways and interest in others – exudes charm and is never without suitors and men falling deeply in love with her. Five men in total hold parts of Clara’s heart.
Susan Vreeland has put to paper the story of a fascinating woman living during a time of much social and artistic change.