I have read and greatly admired all of Susan Vreeland’s novels describing actual artists and their struggles with artistic creation. In particular, I think she flourishes when writing about the creativity of women. Until now, my favorite has been The Forest Lover, a fictionalized early twentieth century tale of Emily Carr painting the spirit of rough-hewn British Columbia. In that novel, Vreeland precisely meshes the contours of the landscape with the textures of Carr’s art.
It’s possible that Clara and Mr. Tiffany is even more successful. Set in the bustling streets and buildings of New York City instead of in distant, western Canada, it equally captures the challenges of expressing real-life artistry in imaginative action. As you might guess from the title, this novel describes Louis Comfort Tiffany’s fabulous panels and kaleidoscopic windows and shades of light. It also explores the role that women—especially Clara Driscoll—played in their development. Her story begins in 1892, the year before the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, where Tiffany’s [and Clara’s] creations will take center stage among the show’s highlights. It ends sixteen years later, when crippling financial difficulties finally forced Tiffany not only to downsize his entire enterprise but to stifle any further artistic innovation.
Clara is a wonderful character study—a “New Woman,” as working women then were called, a bit of a Bohemian, a consummate artist who lives and breathes her fabrications. Clara heads the women’s unit of Tiffany’s, a section set up not only because women’s smaller hands were better able to handle the tinier pieces of glass but also because in those days women were not allowed to join unions. When the men went on strike, the women went on working. It was up to Clara to keep them busy, and she did so by generating a constant stream of new ideas—Tiffany lamp shades, for example, and original ways of overlaying and combining colored pieces of glass.
Clara and Mr. Tiffany explores many facets of Clara’s life. First there’s her artistry, which Vreeland renders in pulsing shades and colors. Second there’s her position as a woman working in a man’s world. It’s fascinating to see her negotiate for herself and her workers, ever striving to overcome prejudice and downright discrimination. Third there are her interactions with the men in her life. I won’t give away the story. Suffice to say that she adores Mr. Tiffany, an intellectual rather than physical romance that dictates many of the choices Clara makes. Other men are important to her, too, as she moves in a lively world of fellow artists and free spirits. Each one is rendered with care, as are the many emigrant women who endlessly toil in Clara’s domain.
They’re as colorful as the profusion of art itself. And Vreeland describes the step by step artistic process in ways that make all the elements come alive. Looking for an apt quotation or two to illustrate the flavor of the book, I found myself awash in vibrancy. Should I choose the exposition mosaic’s “iridescent glass, mother-of-pearl, onyx, and alabaster.” Or some showcases filled with “motifs of feathers, flames, and arabesques.” On every page, the colors and the swirling designs are astonishing. As Clara says, “I was intoxicated by summer, on fire with flowers.” Any reader will be equally enchanted—by her persona, by her glorious art, by her story intertwining so thoroughly with the successes and failures of Tiffany glass.