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Travel: Taft Museum of Art intimate, cozy collection

Steve Stephens More Content Now

CINCINNATI — Museums come in all shapes and sizes.

The Taft Museum of Art, in a historic, Federal-style mansion in downtown Cincinnati, is relatively small but offers the perfect setting for an intimate and cozy — one could say “homey” — interaction with magnificent works.

And through May 27, the museum is hosting “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection,” an exhibit with eye-popping examples of work by the famed American craftsman and decorative artist.

The Taft is the first stop on the exhibit’s nine-city tour, and the first time that the works have been shown outside the private Richard H. Driehaus Museum in Chicago.

Tiffany, the son of jeweler and Tiffany & Co. founder Charles Lewis Tiffany, designed a plethora of decorative objects in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, including furniture, mosaics, jewelry and entire building interiors.

He is best-known for his glass, though, and those works are the primary focus of the exhibit.

Tiffany was at first hindered by the limited colors of available glass, said Lynne Ambrosini, chief curator at the Taft.

“The glassmakers of the day just couldn’t match his vision,” Ambrosini said.

So he founded his own Tiffany Glass Co. to produce the hues that would allow him to capture that artistic vision.

Nearly all of the colors in his glass creations are part of the glass itself, not painted on the surface. He also layered glass to create subtle effects, a technique that is much in evidence at the Taft exhibit.

“Some of my colleagues might take issue with me calling him a painter instead of a decorative-arts creator,” Ambrosini said. “But creating landscapes in glass was his true passion. And he painted with light and glass.”

The exhibit includes seven large, intricate leaded-glass windows that could be considered the epitome of Tiffany’s art. The windows’ brilliant but subtle colors, depth-of-field effects and delicate gradations in texture make them appear much like landscape paintings rendered in glass.

Also at the exhibit are many other decorative objects created by Tiffany and the artists who worked in his studio, including 16 stained-glass lamps and 24 blown-glass vases.

The lamps, perhaps Tiffany’s most widely admired creations, feature natural forms: Flowers and animals in vivid colors and bold designs. They also span the technological progression from kerosene to electric light, an advance that Tiffany embraced with designs such as his innovative and beautiful “Eighteen-Light Lily Table Lamp,” an electric lamp that he exhibited to rave reviews at the 1902 International Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, Italy.

Tiffany’s vases reveal a more delicate, blown-glass technique. His “floriform” art vases, with slender, stalklike stems, resemble impressionistic flowers of glass. The vases are meant to stand alone as decorative objects; filling the iridescent bowls with flowers would be, well, lily-ing the gilded.

The Tiffany exhibit is in the museum’s Fifth Third Gallery, a modern expansion. The adjacent 1820 Baum-Longworth-Sinton-Taft House, now a National Historic Landmark, houses the permanent collection and offers a warmer, cozier setting than found in many larger museums.

The last private occupants of the house, Anna and Charles Taft, assembled most of the permanent collection. (Charles was the half brother of 27th President William Howard Taft, who accepted his 1908 Republican presidential nomination from the porch of the house.)

The collection is displayed throughout the mansion’s rooms, including gorgeous parlors and music and dining rooms with period-appropriate fireplace mantels, chandeliers, carpeting and woodwork.

Like all the best privately assembled collections, the Taft’s is a bit quirky but reveals a wonderful eye and collecting instinct. Paintings include notable works by Rembrandt, Thomas Gainsborough, Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.

Other high points include a collection of 49 decorative pocket watches from the 17th through 19th centuries and a few masterpieces of early 19th century American furniture.

My favorite spot in the museum is the Longworth Foyer, just inside what was once the house’s main entrance. The beautiful entry features eight large-scale landscape murals depicting Ohio River Valley scenes.

The murals were painted directly on the foyer’s plaster walls about 1850 by Robert S. Duncanson, the first African-American artist to achieve widespread acclaim. They are said to be the best surviving examples of pre-Civil War murals painted for a private American home.

Ironically, the Tafts, who bequeathed their home and art collection to the city and future generations, probably never saw the magnificent murals. A previous owner had covered them with wallpaper; they were rediscovered only after the mansion became a museum in 1932.

— Steve Stephens can be reached at sstephens@dispatch.com or on Twitter @SteveStephens.

If You Go:

TAFT MUSEUM OF ART

The museum, in the oldest remaining house in downtown Cincinnati, preserves a small but important collection in a human-scale setting. The museum also will host “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection” through May 27.

The exhibit will travel to museums in eight other cities through 2021: Oshkosh, Wisconsin; Huntsville, Alabama; Davenport, Iowa; Utica, New York; Jacksonville, Florida; Athens, Georgia; Sacramento; and Wilmington, Delaware.

For more information, call 513-241-0343 or visit www.taftmuseum.org.

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