Tiffany conjures images of ultimate luxury. Diamonds and gleaming silver flood our minds at the sound of that name. Yet Louis Comfort Tiffany, son of Tiffany & Company founder Charles, was an artistic polymath who put his stamp on paintings, shimmering glass, mosaics, architecture, pottery, bronze and objet d’art. He was the genius that reinvented interior design for the generation of the Gilded Age.
For lovers of Art Nouveau in America as envisioned by Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848 – 1933) mecca is the Morse Museum in Winter Park, Florida. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art owns the largest and most comprehensive collection of Tiffany art in the world. Like the era that fostered both Louis Comfort Tiffany and affluent Winter Park, the museum is the product of a vast Gilded Age fortune.
Jeannette Genius (1909-1989) was the granddaughter of Chicago industrialist Charles Morse. Charles had a keen appreciation for art and warm Florida winters. First wintering and then retiring to this wealthy suburb of Orlando in the late 19th century, Charles Morse became a major benefactor and real estate baron in Winter Park.
Jeannette’s mother, Elizabeth Morse Genius, was an accomplished artist and patron of the era’s modern art – American impressionism, and Tiffany Studios. Jeannette inherited both wealth and an artistic passion, pursuing her own successful career as an interior designer. After spending much time with her grandfather in Winter Park she chose the town as her permanent residence.
Her family’s philanthropy had already made a mark on Winter Park’s Rollins College, and at the age of 27 Jeannette started a decades-long association on the Board of Trustees. More importantly she met and married a dashing Rollins art professor, Hugh McKean (1908-1995) who himself had an intimate connection to Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Tiffany had designed his magnificent Long Island estate, Laurelton Hall, in 1903 as a showcase for everything he loved. He intended that it would eventually become a residential institution to foster young artists. In 1930 a young Hugh McKean spent months at Laurelton Hall as one of Tiffany’s students. Although Hugh’s family was well to do, it was the match of love, art and Jeannette’s vast fortune that allowed the couple to fulfill their dream.
It’s difficult to believe that even before the death of Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1933, his designs had become passé. During the 1940s and 1950s Jeannette and Hugh amassed a personal collection in every medium of Tiffany Studios designs. They established the Morse Museum and the Charles Hosmer Morse Foundation, which owns and funds museum operations. More importantly, through their work they revived the keen international interest in Louis Comfort Tiffany that grows stronger as time passes.
Upon hearing in 1957 of the tragic fire that destroyed Laurelton Hall they set out to salvage and restore everything they could from stained glass windows, architectural artifacts and Tiffany’s masterpiece, the Byzantine Chapel he designed for Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition. The chapel was a creation of love and a marketing tour de force that catapulted Tiffany’s career to international fame. From its hand carved door, shimmering mosaics, stunning blue baptistery window to the revolutionary eight by ten foot, three dimensional Byzantine cross, the Electrolier, electrified with the aid of Thomas Edison, the chapel alone is worth a visit to the Morse Museum.
A visit to the Morse Museum is more than just gazing at beautifully displayed art. It’s meant to be an educational experience on Tiffany’s life and genius. Free detailed booklets in each gallery meticulously explain the exhibits. The lighting is stunning, illuminating objects in the manner intended for their original owners and eliciting sounds of awe as glass comes alive in shimmering glory. Archival videos and displays demonstrate the actual methods used by Tiffany Studio artists to create these magnificent objects.
An entire wing of the museum recreates as much as possible the feel of Laurelton Hall as Louis Comfort Tiffany would have wanted his guests to experience from the impressive entrance hall, his very modern dining room and what was salvaged of his beloved Daffodil Terrace. The Daffodil Terrace highlights Tiffany’s love for that flower and his skill in ceramics. In a glass walled enclosure complete with comfortable wicker chairs, the terrace invites museum visitors to relax, read and contemplate beauty. Contemplating beauty is the successful legacy of Tiffany, Jeannette, Hugh and the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art.
When you go: Winter Park is 15 miles north of Orlando International Airport. The Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art is open six days a week, closed on Monday and most major holidays. Parking is free.
You can read more articles by Marc d’Entremont at: