August 06, 2013

From the Collection: Landscape by Agnes Northrop

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Agnes F. Northrop (American, 1857-1953). Landscape, date unknown. Gouache and oil on board. Photograph by John Faier, © The Richard H. Driehaus Museum.

As we draw nearer to the opening of the Louis Comfort Tiffany exhibition, this work—created by one of the artists he employed—is a fitting one to stop and enjoy for a moment. On view in the Drawing Room on the mansion’s first floor, it is an elegant and simple painting with quite a history behind it, one which has only recently come to light.

Like many great artists, Tiffany didn’t work alone. He had as much of a gift for culling talent from the world of artisans as he did in designing glassworks or interiors himself. And we’re not talking about just one or two sidekicks; Tiffany employed hundreds.

Landscape is a study for what may have become a stained-glass landscape window. It was created by Agnes Northrop, who ranked high among the female Tiffany Studios employees known as the Tiffany Girls. Tiffany entrusted them with some of the most complex design work in his studios, including window and lamp design, glass selecting, and glass cutting.

Northrop was born in 1857 in Flushing, Queens, New York. She started working for Tiffany quite early in his glassmaking career, in 1884. And she was a lifer, staying with the firm until it closed, then remained on with the related Westminster Memorial Studios. She outlived Tiffany by many years, and was still making leaded windows until she passed away at the age of 96.

The Women’s Glass Cutting Department was formed along with Tiffany’s own glassmaking factory in 1892 in Queens, and Northrop was one of the six inaugural workers. She seemed to have been a favorite among Tiffany’s designers; she, along with the Women’s Glass Cutting Department head designer Clara Driscoll, was invited to accompany the artist on a grand several months spent sketching the Brittany region of France in 1907. Northrop was one of the few women actually given credit for work in exhibitions and catalogues. She was known for her talent in composing floral scenes, and was given the prestige of a private studio in Tiffany Studios’ Fourth Avenue building.

Although there were occasional collaborations, a window was often the work of an individual designer. To arrive at this study, Northrop would have first sketched out the initial scheme. Upon Tiffany’s approval, she painted this more detailed composition to be presented to the patron. Her depiction of a stream flowing through the forest was likely for a memorial window, hinting at the “River of Life” motif popular in Tiffany Studios ecclesiastical commissions.

It is unknown whether this work was accepted by the client and then allowed to go to the next step, during which Northrop would have created a full-scale cartoon was created as a template showing the exact sections for glass pieces, paint-by-numbers-style.  After that, she would have selected and cut the glass herself. Tiffany thought a woman’s sense of color and the nimbleness of her fingers to be superior to a man’s, and entrusted his female designers with this essential part of making his windows. From there, the window would go to the leading and enameling departments. And Northrop would begin a new project—perhaps a lamp this time, or an inlaid metal box.

This post is indebted to the work of Martin Eidelberg, Nina Gray, and Margaret K. Hofer, authors of A New Light on Tiffany: Clara Driscoll and the Tiffany Girls (New-York Historical Society, 2007).

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