The Art Glass Portrait Fad: 1898

Spring, John La Farge 1901-2 Philadelphia Museum of Art

PORTRAITS

Painted on Window Glass

The Latest Fad in Those Who Have Fine Houses.

It Is a Luxury That Costs Those Who Indulge

In This Mode of Decorating Their Homes.

Local Art Concerns Are Receiving Many Orders For This Newest of Fashionable Whims.

Another costly vanity is being taken on by the world of big money spenders, including some Cincinnatians. It might be called a crusade against the possibility of having one’s picture turned toward the wall. At any rate, it’s a beautiful wrinkle, well calculated to wring “Papa, buy me one” from many a pair of scientifically reddened lips in Clifton, Avondale and other fat pocket-book precincts of the town. All you have to do to have one of them is to have a swell residence with a staircase window and bank account enough to draw for a few hundred. The manufacturer of “art glass portraits” will do the rest, and charge you from $100 to $10,000 for the job.

Your picture in a stained glass window–without a stain! Sunlight pouring through from the rear, making you look as many more times more beautiful than an oil painting or a seventy-nine-cent colored crayon portrait as you can imagine.

This costly “triumph” of portraiture work making the one portrayed seem to be “just speaking” may prevent many a daughter and wife getting the “old man” to loosen the twine on his purse for the price–but that’s no argument against the “triumph.” And you’d never guess how the price is regulated! The answer is startling.

To the maid or the matron in love with their décolleté loveliness and wanting it pictured in glass this latest vanity will prove much more expensive than to her of the

HIGH-NECKED DRESS.

Told in fewer words–in the plain, blushless words of the art glass window artist–the price of having your picture in fashion aforesaid is regulated by the amount of naked flesh to be pictured.

“Naked flesh is the most difficult thing that we reproduce in these pictures,” explained one of this new-thing artists. “The chemicals used in the coloring play desperate tricks on us when it comes to burning the colors into the glass. The varying flesh tints necessary in making a portrait of a lady’s face, breast, shoulders, arms and hands offer a multitude of opportunities for faulty development of the picture by means of the fires that burn it into the glass. This fact is why, in cathedral window work, we would any time rather produce a picture of the entire 12 Apostles than of Christ on the cross, the latter figure calling for picturing an almost nude human body. It is the necessary and very delicate process of burning the portrait into the glass–in order to make it permanent and capable of resisting atmospheric changes–that makes this class of work expensive, and very trying to the artist or operator. After the utmost skill and greatest care possible has been bestowed on the preparation of the portrait, and of the kilns in which the burning is done the result may be like this,” and the artist drew forth a two-foot square sheet of glass bearing the portrait of the beautiful wife of a banker living in the northern part of this state. The heat had broken the glass through the lower part of the picture, and warped a corner. “Three hundred dollars gone in a second!” commented the artist. “And the heat was identically the same, to a fraction of a degree, as that we always do

THIS BURNING WITH.

The glass was previously examined under a powerful microscope and found perfect, and precisely the same as others that we had used with entire success. Why this piece broke, why others break; why some tint develop wholly wrong; in the kilns–these are mysteries about the business which the greatest experts are incapable of solving. Owing to these many risks the charges for the work have to be heavy, as they are. In no case can one ever tell whether a contract will lose or make us money. And, owing to this same mysterious trickery, we can never tell a customer when a picture will be done. We never know how many times it will discolor or break in the kilns. Usually it requires three or four burnings of an hour apiece to complete the work.

“My having spoken of the difficulty of picturing flesh tints,” continued the artist, “reminds me to say that I am told the finest piece of work of this kind is in a window portrait in the boudoir of a certain very wealthy Avondale couple, neither of whom has any gray hairs yet–nor children, either. The portrait shows the wife posing in some classic character. All the clothes or drapery to be seen consists of a strip of billowy gauze, with which young Mme. Avondale seems to be trying to ‘jump the rope.’ The picture was posed for and made in New York City. I am told it cost $6,000, and that the artist had three copies of it ruined in the kilns before being successful. This, all owing to the desperate difficulty presented by having an entirely nude human body to portray. I happen to know that another swell young wife is now in New York posing for a somewhat similarly startling window portrait of herself. Almost, if not fully as fine work in this line is done right here in Cincinnati, but the society queens wanting these nude or semi-nude pictures can’t bring themselves to pose for the home artists. Hearing of a $5,000 job of this kind that was contemplated I figured around and got a lady to call on the one desirous of having the work done and suggest that a model–to be selected by the couple themselves–could be substituted for me to work from, for the body portion of the picture. But it developed that apparently that portion figured most prominently in the wishes of the people—the gentleman and his wife—as to

THE PORTRAIT DESIRED.

“Consequently the job went to New York. Mrs. Belmont, of New York, who is grandmother of a Duke, leads in having the most beautiful window portrait in this country. Only the beautiful but extravagant Queen of Italy has anything to show like the huge window of art glass that fits into space at the head of the stairs in Mrs. Belmont’s New York house. This window, 14 feet high by 8 feet broad, looks toward the west, and every one who enters the hall of the house cannot fail to look up at this window, through the many colors of which all the light for the hall comes. In a framework of marvelous glass roses the mistress of the mansion stands arrayed in the most gorgeous yellow brocaded satin, wearing her famous turquoise tiara, necklace and brooches. The window was designed and the glass work done by American artists, and the crystal pieces of glowing color and many degrees of thickness are put together in a framework of silver instead of lead. It required nearly two years to complete the work, and no one save the present owner and the maker of the window knows the price that was paid for it. At some points in the decoration genuine jewels are set in with the glass, and at night a heavy iron door closes at the back of the window, which, by cunningly arranged electric lights, is softly illuminated.”

Child’s art glass portrait in the Aesthetic style. Former eBay listing.

There are three or four places in Cincinnati where this art glass portrait work is done, and several others where orders are taken for it. If the idea is attracting considerable attention as a vanity it is being patronised from a more serious and more befitting point of view as well. Mr. Richard H. Mitchell, of Mitchell avenue, Avondale, has in his residence a beautiful art window portrait of his father, Mr. Albert Mitchell, deceased. The portrait is against a background of shamrocks. Superintendent Willis Tharp, of the Waterworks, has one in his residence of his little daughter. Colonel A. L. Anderson, of Newport. Ky., thus perpetuates the likeness of his little boy. A magnificent window, from which look forth the faces of a little boy and girl of the family, stands in the Schwegman residence, Avondale.

In all of this art glass portraiture work the face, and so much of the figure as possible, is first hand painted on the glass and then burnt not onto, but into the glass. The decorative background and framing of glass is of glass stained at the time of being manufactured. save as to the more delicate, finer bits of the work. An original design is prepared in the case of every order.

Cincinnati [OH] Enquirer 13 March 1898: p. 12

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: What a very piquant idea: that naked flesh should cost more than a clothed portrait! Not entirely a compelling argument, one feels, for high-necked ball gowns and one imagines that the ladies who could afford Worth ball dresses wished to show them off in art glass.

“Mrs Belmont of New York” was Mrs Alva Erskine Smith Vanderbilt Belmont, who forced her unhappy daughter Consuelo into marriage with the Duke of Marlborough. The house was Petit Chateau, also known as the William K. Vanderbilt House, on Fifth Avenue, Manhattan. The turquoise parure and the stained glass sound sumptuous, but, alas, Mrs Daffodil cannot find any photographs. 

Stained glass in houses, was, like the antique furniture and “Old Master” art-works bought by the pound from European agents, considered just a wee bit parvenu. Here is a joke on the subject:

A fashionable lady, in boasting of her new “palatial residence,” said that the windows were all of stained glass. “That’s too bad!” cried her mother; “but won’t soap and turpentine take the stains out?”

The Daily Sentinel [Garden City KS] 10 May 1887: p. 2

The little girl’s portrait is a rarity. The idiosyncratic nature of family portraits and changing tastes in decor meant that many of these pieces were destroyed or relegated to the attic.

Mrs Daffodil invites you to join her on the curiously named “Face-book,” where you will find a feast of fashion hints, fads and fancies, and historical anecdote

You may read about a sentimental succubus, a vengeful seamstress’s ghost, Victorian mourning gone horribly wrong, and, of course, Mrs Daffodil’s efficient tidying up after a distasteful decapitation in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales.

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