Women's work, rediscovered
Following 2007’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, author Susan Vreeland again delves into the lives behind an iconic work of art—this time, the intricate lamps produced by Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company at the turn of the 20th century. Long thought to be the work of Louis Comfort Tiffany himself, the famous lamps were discovered in 2005 to have been designed by Clara Driscoll, the head of his studio’s remarkable women’s department. Clara not only designed what became, for a time, Tiffany’s most lucrative line of decorative items, but also grew a fledgling team of six young girls into a crew of female artists 30 strong in the space of a few years. Vreeland’s depiction of Clara’s world, her accomplishments and her desires in Clara and Mr. Tiffany is movingly delightful.
At the start of the novel, the widowed, 31-year-old Clara returns to Tiffany’s employ after two years away. Inspired by her return to the work she loves, Clara conceives the idea for leaded glass lampshades. But while her creativity blooms with the colorful blossoms in her designs, her frustration with Mr. Tiffany, whom she respects and adores, grows as he refuses to publicly acknowledge the roles she and her “Tiffany Girls” play in his artistic and commercial successes. Meanwhile, Clara’s longing for love forces her into a difficult choice between career and marriage, since Tiffany will not allow married women to work for him.
Vreeland brings 1890s Manhattan to vibrant life as Clara becomes aware of her young immigrant hires’ impoverished home lives and as she grows close to her eccentric, artistic boardinghouse neighbors, including the flamboyant George and steadfast Bernard. Vivid descriptions of window and lamp production will surely bring readers a new appreciation for stained glass. And Clara’s battles for the rights of her female workers and for artistic originality versus mass production are compelling, as is her complicated relationship with Mr. Tiffany. This charming woman is a memorable heroine and, just as Clara’s art enhanced the images of nature that it depicted, Vreeland’s illuminating vision of Clara’s story is a pleasure to experience.