Will H. Low: Old Glass in New Windows.

Scribner's magazine 6, 1888

By Will H. Low

When the late Matthew Arnold, in the pursuit of the evasive quality of Distinction, questioned the German artist whom he found painting in the States concerning the condition of the Fine Arts here, it is probable that his inquiry was of too general a character to include a particular question as to what this young country had achieved in so old an art as glass-staining. Had he done so we may assume (basing our supposition on the recorded answer to Mr. Arnold's general inquiry) that the worthy German, gazing through the myopic spectacles which had served him so well in other directions, would have answered that in this, as in the other graphic arts, we had nothing to our credit. Nor could we complain of either question or answer, had they been made by these strangers within our gates, for here, at home, great numbers of cultivated people, including a large class of men directly interested, hold the same opinion.

And yet here in New York, and in the shadow of this indifference, the art of the glass-stainer, which in the hands of its [] legitimate heirs in Germany, France, and England, by the grafting of elements antagonistic to its growth, had become a mere shadow of its former self, has acquired new vigor, and even now blossoms as the rose. That this art, which is so nearly allied to the old world of the past, should find its renaissance in the last years of the nineteenth century amidst the dust and clamor of our new-world mart is curious enough. But in a country where, in default of cathedrals inherited front ages gone by, our interest in the church is in part manifested by the fact that there are more than four thousand religious edifices of different denominations now in course of construction, this revival is more than curious; it becomes a question of eminent artistic importance in the old world the field of the glass-stainer is virtually limited to the Roman Catholic Church and the Established Church of England. Here, with the widening of sect-distinctions, the churches of nearly all denominations are open to hint, and it needs no gift of prophecy to foresee, in the near future, the clear sunshine gaining admittance to all our churches through colored glass, and carrying with it messages of faith and fortitude, of joyous hope and reverent memory.

To uphold frankly the theory that the stained glass now made in the United States is better than that obtainable elsewhere, and by reference to ancient standards to explain the reason for this belief, is the object of this paper; but first it becomes necessary to go back to the origin of stained glass as we know it.

Glass, colored either by mixture of coloring matter in its making, or by painting the glass already made with vitritiable colors, was known to the Greeks; but although writers as ancient as Grégoire de Tours (544-595) speak with more or less detail of leaded glass, the earliest specimen that can be authenticated is that in a church at Neuweiler, in Alsace, which dates from the eleventh century. It would appear from its purely decorative character, and from its inherent limitations, which to this day surround it, that stained glass had arrived at its apogee at a time when the art of painting was just bursting from the Byzantine bud. Well on in the thirteenth century the Italian glass had accomplished more than the sister art of fresco, and the designs for the windows in the Duomo at Florence made by Taddeo or Agnolo Gaddi seem much more modern than their painting. The glass of this and the following century, much of which still exists, is notable for the subdued splendor of its color, and is almost (in the earlier specimens entirely) without painting. In fact it was not until the fifteenth century that elaborate glass painting was attempted, and from that period ensues a decadence in which the French and Germans, and to a great extent the English, still remain. For it is from the period of Raphael, when men began to paint freely and became highpriests at the altar of art instead of humble worshippers, that the mosaic of glass began to disappear and that transparent painting usurped its place.

Before this, the windows depending upon the actual color of the glass were made in a manner not unlike the common dissected map of our childhood. To make a window, a design was made, generally the simple figure of a saint, with a purely decorative background; pieces of glum of varying and appropriate colors were cut and placed in their proper places, and it only remained to hind these pieces thinly together by a ribbon of lead with a groove on either side, which was soldered at the junction of the pieces, and to place the whole in an iron frame, crossed at intervals by thin bars placed horizontally, to which the leads were fastened by wires. The result would be a stained-glass window somewhat resembling that of the thirteenth century, or, so little have methods changed, that of the present time. When this frame, filled with glass, was placed in the opening of the wall for which it was destined, it would be seen that the light coming through the transparent glass brought into dark relief the leadlines, which thus served as the outlines of the various forms represented. This was the earliest development of stained glass.

In the two centuries that followed, painting with vitrifiable colors was resorted to in order to represent modelled surfaces, and commencing from rude and timid outlines to define the features of the face or the division of the fingers, painting was at last used with little discrimination on all portions of the window. Another of the limitations of the early glass-stainer, which was a blessing in disguise, was also to disappear with the mechanical improvement in the manufacture of glass. At first his glass was blown, not cast or rolled (indeed the latter method of fabrication is of late date), and therefore the glass came to him in small pieces, and as the mixture of the ingredients or the intensity of the fire would vary, so would the quality of the color. This gave him great variety of tint from which to choose, although it occasionally entailed arbitrary leading, such as, to take a common instance, a leadline crossing the neck of a figure between the chin and shoulders, and thereby giving the saint a decapitated look. But by improvements in the fabrication of glass, larger pieces were obtainable, and always it would appear as though the makers had an ideal only admirable in a plateglass window manufacturer, of making a sheet of glass uniform in color and texture. On these large sheets of glass the painter had full swing; more and more vitrifiable colors were invented; a process of cutting away the surface so as to make a design appear in light upon the darker body of the glass was devised; the colors became more and more uniform, until, proceeding rapidly, we reach this century — though in taking this arbitrary step, which the limits of an article such as this annmand, we must pass by much that is admirable.

Anyone who has lingered in the aisles of the old cathedrals. moved by the color of the glass, which is glowing and jewellike, never garish or harsh, and then has turned, as we can do in sonic cathedral towns, to the modern fabric, and has seen how crude in color, how small in treatment, how uniform in texture, how manufactured, turned out by the métre carré it all is — such an one is apt to count glass-staining as one of time lost arts. The Continent is full of such places, where literally acres of stained glass are made each year. The designs are sometimes admirably drawn, though somewhat too conventionally composed; the painting of heads and hands is of marvellous dexterity; while the draperies are generally overloaded with painting, the painting being universally done on a flat piece of glass, of which the original color remains for the high lights, the halftones and shadows being obtained by vitritiable pigments. England has profited rather more than France or Germany by the study of old examples, for while in the latter countries such study has resulted apparently in nothing more than a retention of cer tain archaic features in design and arbitrary leading, some of the English artists — Burne Jones notably — have designed windows in which the sentiment expressed is more personal, while they respect the limitations of their material more than the designers of the Continent. The English, also, by a systematic employment of semineutral tones, avoid the harsh primary reds, yellows, and blues of the German and French makers, and their glass, although unfitted for the strong light prevalent in our climate, has nevertheless a subdued charm of its own. All of these countries, it is needless to say, have, until a comparatively recent date, furnished our churches with their windows, and opportunities to judge them are not lacking.

But a change was at hand, and if the result had been less good than we maintain it to be the attempt at making stained glass in this country would still have been interesting from the spontaneity of its growth, from its resemblance to the manner in which, in the old days, painting sprung full-blossomed from the Florentine soil. It came about the Centennial year, the date from which our future Vasari, if we ever deserve one, will trace the first concerted art movement in this country. Before that time we had in more or less isolation men who perhaps under happier auspices would have developed more, who at any rate, in a community that was more in sympathy with them, would have found more employment for certain of their faculties.

To such a man, Mr. John La Farge, who had been known for years as a painter possessed of a deep-seated feeling for color and a largeness of sentiment in composition which had found expression only in easel pictures, was given, in the year 1876, the task of decorating Trinity Church, Boston. From this building, the work of Richardson by which he is best known, and which is perhaps the most cathedral-like of our churches, the transition to stained glass seems to have been a natural one; or possibly the moment was propitious, for no sooner was Mr. La Farge engaged in his first experimental glass than Mr. Louis C. Tiffany, who, like Mr. La Farge, was a painter by profession, became interested in the same direction. Under the impetus given by these two men — working in different ways — Mr. Tiffany's sense of color and feeling for ornament leading him rather toward the Orient, and Mr. La Farge remaining more true to classic influence — the first steps of glassmaking were taken.

I say first steps advisedly, for at the commencement everything had to be done anew. The rays from the lamp of convention by which the makers of glass in Europe had guided their steps did not reach across the Atlantic, and the first windows were made by virtually reinventing the whole process. Makers of the commoner kinds of stained glass had long been established here, and the genius of the American mechanic had devised or adapted machines by which large sheets of colored glass could be rolled, sheets both broad and long, and of uniform color and depth throughout. These were admirable results of mechanical skill, but essentially inartistic. They furnished the first glass, but as they proved inadequate and as other colors and textures were imperatively demanded, the proprietor of a large glassmaking establishment, I think in Brooklyn, grudgingly conceded the use of some of his material and men who, under the direction of our pioneer glass-stainers, made glass that was slightly better in quality. And then the interesting discovery was made that glass made by the oneman power, as we may say, in small quantities, of uneven thickness, and undoubtedly improved by happy accident (as when by a failure to make one color another, and perhaps better one, was obtained) was greatly more varied in tone and color than that made by modern improved processes. By this discovery, and by the consequent demand for such glass, a new field was opened for ambitious men, who from workmen became masters on a small scale, and it is from men such as these, constantly experimenting and working with a small force and by handpower, that the best glass is still obtained. As uniformity had been the criterion of excellence, now variety obtained the palm, and it has kept it, until today the larger stainedglass window manufacturers carry a stock of glass that in its variety of hue and shade far exceeds the range of the painter's palette.

Soon after the commencement of the new-old art came the introduction of the opalescent glass. The credit of its introduction has been a matter of controversy which need not enter here, and the claim has also been made that it was known to the old glassmakers, but, as far as I know, this claim is supported by little proof. The opalescent glass, which has formed so large an element in the beauty of American glass, is by itself somewhat porcelain-like in appearance but against the light, and at certain angles, has much of the tire and the changing hue of the opal. It can be combined with any other color, which then partakes of the same characteristics. Used with discretion in a window it is capable of charming effect, lighting up and vivifying tones which by themselves would be sombre and quasi-opaque.

Mr. La Farge and Mr. TitIlLuy had from the commencement men who worked with them and very near thew, and soon the number increased, until today, with the facilities which are common or nearly so to them all, there is a remarkable unity of merit in American glass, the differences being largely matters of taste or dependent upon the artistic merit of the original design. Here, of course, there can be the usual variety of opinion; but it is, I think, almost without parallel that the means employed to render the effect of the original cartoon should be so uniformly good. It is somewhat like a school of painting, where the technical execution of every artist should be the same, leaving only the difference which the temperament of the different men would impose in subject and sentiment. But this fair edifice was not built in a day. Many were the failures, many the paths diligently followed only to find that they ended in quagmires, before this uniformity of excellence, worthy to be classed as a school, was reached. In the effort to avoid the error into which the European makers had fallen, of depending too largely upon painting the glass, our early makers tried various expedients. The first and most natural of these was little else than an adaptation of the principle on which are made the familiar porcelain glass lampshades, with landscapes modelled on their surface. As the picture is seen in transparence it is necessary to make the darkest accents the thickest and most opaque portions of the glass, and proceeding in this manner, making thinner or thicker the glass as the intensity or the delicacy of the tone requires, a curious sort of bassrelief is made, which, placed in front of a light, appears to be painted on the surface. With great effort heads and draperies were modelled in this manner and cast in glass, but the effect was never satisfactory; and having learned the lesson that one play be too much of a purist, our glassmakers now use vitrifiable colors when it is necessary. In the course of this experiment an advantage was gained by the making of what is now technically known as drapery glass. This is made from the glass, as it is thrown, in a melted state, upon a flat table of iron to be rolled into a disk. When the glass is spread out, very much like piecrust, the roller by which it is spread keeping up the resemblance, the edges are seized by the glassmaker, armed with short tongs, who overlaps an edge, or pulls and twists it in various directions as his fancy may suggest. This glass when annealed and cooled reveals in great variety the flow and twist of folds of drapery, and when the artistartisan, with the main direction of the lines of the draperies of the cartoon which he is following firmly fixed in his mind, visits the racks in which, row upon row, the disks of glass are stored, he is generally able to select pieces which, placed in the window, represent. in the color of the glass, unaided by the painter's skill, the most subtile gradations of light and shade in the form of the drapery. For the heads, and indeed whenever it becomes necessary, recourse is had to the painter. Here the French and Germans, with their long experience, have been, until very lately, greatly our superiors. Painting upon glass is at the best a tedious mechanical process, and a clever piece of painting may be utterly spoiled in the "firing" which is necessary to vitrify the colors used. But already we have acquired experience, and some of our work is in effect as good as that done abroad, while the grade of artists employed is somewhat better, giving occasionally a more personal character to the work.

In fact as the art stands here to-day, it has kept a more distinctly artistic character than in the old world. In Europe, with governmental patronage, and with museums ready to receive works of a large size which such encouragement creates, it is an inferior class of artists, as a rule, who engage in making stained glass. Here, on the contrary, almost every man who has the technical equip ment to create large decorative work has been more or less engaged in designing for or making stained glass. In addition to Mr. La Farge and Mr. Tiffany, we have had Mr. F. D. Millet, Mr. Francis Lathrop, Mr. E. H. Blashfield, Mr. Elihu Vedder, Mr. G. W. Maynard, Mr. Robert Blum, and Mr. Kenyon Cox, — to name a few of our foremost figurepainters.

Given the extreme variety and richness of our glass, it has been possible to attempt subjects of such complexity of effect that we have gone beyond the limit by which the European glassmaker is restricted. Herein lies the ground for a reproach which is often aimed at our glass, generally by men of strict adherence to ecclesiastical formulae. The reproach, which affects only glass for church purposes, is, in sum, that it is too vivid, too realistic, and has too great similarity to mere decoration, irrespective of the sacred character of the place for which it is destined. While the same reproach could be applied with equal justice to the whole Venetian school of painting — to which our glass is somewhat allied — there is a foundation for it in the fact that, from the limitations which restriction in the manufacture of glass imposed upon the old makers of church windows, a more conventional treatment and greater austerity of effect was usual with them. But as Viollet le Due has pointed out, in the thirteenth century glass, where perspective is often grossly violated, this was not done in order to keep the window within the limits of mural decoration, but through sheer ignorance of the laws of perspective. In a similar vein, we may remark that in coming from the glowing windows of Santa Croce, in Florence, it is hard to believe that a thirteenth century glass-stainer would have willingly resigned the opportunities which come with the curious and beautifully variegated glass which we have at our command, and which enable us to approach somewhat nearer to the glories of sun and shadow, of tinted cloud or far-reaching horizon. The sad-colored harmonies of our English cousins seem too arbitrarily restrained, as does their deliberate archaism in making a lead-line - which is purposely kept as heavy as those in the old glass, although a leadline always makes itself evident enough, and we have today much lighter lead at our service — cut across an arm or a fold of drapery where no actual need of construction calls for it.

To take an instance near at hand: in the city of Boston, in Trinity Church, we have some of the best English windows that have come to this country, designed by Mr. Burne Jones, and made in a nearly avowed competition with the glass by Mr. La Farge, in the same church. In the English work we have, undoubtedly, elements of beauty, such as go with the design of Mr. Burne Jones, but little else. Considered as colors, they hardly exist, while by their side the work of the American artist has a depth and richness which adds to the dignity and beauty of the design. That these English windows are more in the character of old work, as regards superficial features, such as the archaism referred to above, is true enough; but as old work has, as its most essential characteristic, great beauty of color, which is almost always absent in English work, there seems but little ground for a marked preference which certain of the clergy have for English glass. There is in this a question of design made in obedience to conventional law, which, with the freedom of men who feel called to do individual work, we upon this side of the water have neglected; but latterly attempts have been made, with success, to combine, in a design which is cognizant of ecclesiastical requirements, the elements of color inherent to American glass, and the skill which we have acquired in its use.

An example of such a design is given herewith, that of a window made by the Tiffany Glass Company for the Church of the Heavenly Rest of New York. It is of the familiar Gothic description, the design of which, while studiously conventional, is rendered interesting by a certain personality in the character of the figures, which were designed by Mr. Lyell Carr. This is as it should be, the windows by Mr. Burne Jones, for instance, being full of the characteristics of their designer while fulfilling the requirements of the church. But although adherence to convention is common to the German and French glass-stainers, there has not, to my knowledge, come to this country any window by them which is above the level of good mediocrity; nor, indeed, are there men in these countries of the same relative artistic importance as the Americans who are engaged in designing and making stained glass.

But it is as a means of expression of artistic qualities which could hardly find their vent in any other direction, that our stained glass rises to the height of a definite achievement. The windows by Mr. La Fargo in Trinity, that in the Ames Memorial at North Easton, and the sumptuous windows adorning the hall and stairway in the residence of the late William H. Vanderbilt, could only have been done by the fortuitous possession by a gifted artist of a material of surprising richness. In like manner the design by Mr. Tiffany which graces these pages was carried out much as a painter working with color made by pulverizing gems might have done it. This exceeding wealth of color, aided by the network of the leadlines, carries with it, moreover, a certain solidity of impression that keeps our most audacious experiments thoroughly within the realm of mural decoration; so that, despite the lamentations of our pseudoarchaic critics tbat we occasionally represent too much distance, our glass seems more on the plane of the wall into which it is set than most of the thinner and clearer glass of foreign manufacture.

But this plea for greater public recognition of our most truly national achievement in the arts of design must draw to a close. While it is not intended to call attention to individual works in general, brief mention may be made of Mr. Francis Lathrop's dignified figure of Christ in the window in Bethesda Church, Saratoga, of Mr. Maitland Armstrong's window in Grace Church, Providence, characterized, as is all Mr. Armstrong's work, by good taste and a somewhat more strict adherence to approved methods than some of his brother artists, though the designs reproduced here tell their own story. Excellent work has also been done by Mr. Frederic Crowninshield, Mr. John Johnston, Mr. Prentice Treadwell, Mr. Frank Hill Smith, and others, mere registration of this fact must suffice. But in conclusion I may say, as I commenced, that here is toclay an art practised with much of that originality which our foreign critics call for as a manifestation of the American spirit. That this should be fostered and encouraged would appear to go without saying; that it is properly so encouraged is not as yet the case; but if anyone of those interested in the actual erection of a stainedglass window will dispassionately study the subject, and learn what is being done here and elsewhere, the conclusion will be forced upon him that here is an art that is native, and that has taken root from a small beginning; that even now the vigorous young trunk spreads forth its blossoming branches to delight and make proud the land where the arid waste has become the fair garden.

Ei kommentteja :