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.
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Kirkus Reviews 2010 October #2
In her sixth work of fiction about the inter-penetration of life and art, Vreeland (Luncheon of the Boating Party, 2007, etc.) celebrates the putative designer of Tiffany's leaded-glass lampshades.Â
That would be Clara Driscoll. Some art historians now believe that it was Clara, unacknowledged in her lifetime, who conceived the lampshades. What is indisputable is that, encouraged by Louis Tiffany, she was a major creative force at his Glass and Decorating Company. (This was separate from the jewelry company, run by his father Charles.) From 1892 to 1908, she oversaw the Women's Department; many of her workers were from poor immigrant families and still in their teens. Louis would not employ married women. Clara had returned to the company after her much older husband Francis died, omitting her from his will. Vreeland's account of the marriage is sketchy; her primary focus is on the workplace. Here Clara is a commanding figure: a mother hen to the Tiffany Girls, a feminist challenging the rampant sexism of the Men's Department and an imaginative innovator marrying glass to flowers and insects. Her greatest triumph was the dragonfly lamp at the Paris Exposition, though even there she was not given credit. However, she did find consolation in her bohemian downtown boardinghouse, especially in the company of the madcap painter George Waldo (gay, like several of their fellow lodgers) and his straight brother Edwin, a prospective husband until his mysterious disappearance. Vreeland guides us conscientiously through the world of glass, of cames and cabochons, though the detail can be overwhelming. More damagingly, she has let the stifling propriety of the time infect Clara as narrator; though prim among her peers, she could surely have unbuttoned to us, her readers. Louis, cocooned in reverence, suffers too. His one memorable scene comes after his wife's death when, a remorseful drunk, his language turns salty.
A novel that reads like a labor of love. Unfortunately, the labor is as evident as the love.Copyright Kirkus 2010 Kirkus/BPI Communications.All rights reserved.
Vreeland (Luncheon of the Boating Party) creates another affecting story of artistic vision and innovation, this time set within the crafts movement around the turn of the 19th century. She tells the story of Clara Driscoll, who ran the women's workshop at the New York studios of Louis Comfort Tiffany. In Vreeland's account, it was Clara who had the idea to create lampshades from stained glass; Mr. Tiffany, unconcerned with profits, gave her the freedom to follow her creative instincts. While Clara had her share of personal struggles, she lived happily among artists and bohemians during a time of great social change; settlement houses, women's suffrage, and trade unions were among the nascent progressive movements that influenced her life and times. VERDICT In trademark style, Vreeland adds depth to her novel by incorporating details about the artistic process. Her descriptions highlight the craftsmanship behind the timeless beauty of Tiffany's glass, and the true story of Clara Driscoll's life serves as a colorful canvas. Recommended for historical fiction readers; likely to become a favorite on the book club circuit. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 8/10.]--Susanne Wells, P.L. of Cincinnati & Hamilton Cty.[Page 58]. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Vreeland (Luncheon of the Boating Party) again excavates the life behind a famous artistic creation--in this case the Tiffany leaded-glass lamp, the brainchild not of Louis Comfort Tiffany but his glass studio manager, Clara Driscoll. Tiffany staffs his studio with female artisans--a decision that protects him from strikes by the all-male union--but refuses to employ women who are married. Lucky for him, Clara's romantic misfortunes--her husband's death, the disappearance of another suitor--insure that she can continue to craft the jewel-toned glass windows and lamps that catch both her eye and her imagination. Behind the scenes she makes her mark as an artist and champion of her workers, while living in an eclectic Irving Place boarding house populated by actors and artists. Vreeland ably captures Gilded Age New York and its atmosphere--robber barons, sweatshops, colorful characters, ateliers--but her preoccupation with the larger historical story comes at the expense of Clara, whose arc, while considered and nicely told, reflects the times too closely in its standard-issue woman-behind-the-man scenario. (Jan.)[Page ]. Copyright 2010 PWxyz LLC