Glass Arts

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A History of Glass

Online Resources
Archaeological findings indicate that glass was first made in the Middle East, sometime in the 3000's B.C. In the beginning glass manufacturing was slow and costly. Glass melting furnaces were very small and hardly produced enough heat to melt glass properly. In ancient times, glass was a luxury item and few people could afford it.

An unknown person discovered the blowpipe in the 1st century B.C. on the Phoenician coast. Glass manufacturing flourished in the Roman empire and spread from Italy to all countries under Roman jurisdiction. Due to mass production, glass become an everyday object and was removed from the list of luxuries.

By the time of the Crusades, glass manufacture had been revived in Venice as a result of good contacts with Byzantium. Equipment was transferred to the Venetian island of Murano, where Soda Lime glass, better known as cristallo was developed. Venetian glass-blowers created some of the most delicate and graceful glass the world has ever seen. Despite their efforts to keep the technology secret, it soon spread around Europe.

After 1890, glass uses and manufacturing developments increased so rapidly as to be almost revolutionary. The science and engineering of glass as a material was much better understood, and in the late 1950's Sir Alastair Pilkington introduced a new revolutionary production method (float glass production), by which 90% of flat glass is still manufactured today.

Glassmaking Discovered
Little is known about the first attempts to make glass. The Roman historian Pliny attributed it to Phoenician sailors. He recounted how they landed on a beach, propped a cooking pot on some blocks of natron they were carrying as cargo, and made a fire over which to cook a meal. To their surprise, the sand beneath the fire melted and ran in a liquid stream that later cooled and hardened into glass.

That said, no one really knows how glass came to be made. It is thought that the ability to make glass developed over a long period of time from experiments with a mixture of silica-sand (ground quartz pebbles) and an alkali binder fused on the surface. The material called faience had been used for well over a thousand years to make small decorative objects such as beads and amulets.

Although it existed as an ignored, accidental byproduct of copper smelting, true glass probably was first made in western Asia, perhaps Mesopotamia, at least 40 centuries ago.

Perhaps early development began with potters firing their wares. Could the first glass have been colorful, hard, shiny decoration fused to a clay pot's surface in the heat of the furnace? No one knows. It was later discovered that if the material were thick enough, it would stand by itself. Pieces of solid glass could then be ground to shape by grinding it with stones, or sand and water, to produce vessels. 

Phoenicia: area of modern Lebanon 
Natron: an alkali; a natural occurring evaporate form of soda found around the shores of lakes in the Wadi Natroun.
Egypt: used in the mummification process in ancient Egypt 
Mesopotamia: parts of the countries now know as Iraq and Syria 

As early as 3,300 years ago, secret "instructions" for furnace building and glassmaking in Mesopotamia were written on clay tablets in a cuneiform script. These instructions were copied and recopied over the centuries. Furnace-building instructions from that time period have not been discovered. The cuneiform tablet pictured on the left of this page is probably about 2,700 years old. Typical instructions for glassmaking follow: 

"When you set up the foundation of a good furnace to make glass, you first search in a favorable month for a day of good omen, and only then can you set up the foundation of the furnace. As soon as you have finished building the furnace you go and place Kubu-images there. No insider or stranger should enter the building; an unclean person must not even pass in front of the images. You regularly perform libation offerings before them. On the day when you plan to make (glass), you make a sheep sacrifice before the Kubu-images (religions statues); you place juniper incense on the incense burner; you pour out a libation (drink honoring a deity) of honey and liquid butter; only then can you make the fire in the hearth of the furnace and place the glass in the furnace. 

The wood that you burn in the hearth of the furnace should be thick, peeled poplar wood, which has no knots, bound together with leather straps, cut in the month of the Abu (July or August). Only this wood should be in the hearth of the furnace. The persons whom you allow to come near the furnace have to be clean; only then can you allow them to come to the furnace. 

If you want to produce zagindurû-colored (blue) glass, you finely grind separately, ten minas (about one pound) of immanakku-stone (quartz), fifteen minas of naga-plant ashes, and 1 2/3 minas of 'white plant.' You mix these together. You place the mixture into a cold furnace that has four openings, and you arrange the mixture between its openings. You keep a good and smokeless fire burning....As soon as the mixture glows yellow, you pour it on a kiln fired brick and this is called zukû-glass...."

Glassblowing Discovered
Until about 50 B.C. glass objects could only be made slowly. One bottle could take several days to make by casting, core forming, or cutting techniques. Because it was difficult and time-consuming to make, glass was a luxury item as rare as gold or precious stones.

That situation quickly changed with the discovery of glass blowing. Roman people, probably in Phoenicia (mostly modern Lebanon) discovered that an object could be formed by gathering molten glass on the end of a hollow blowing pipe, and inflating it like a bubble. It could be blown into a hollow mold to form it or freely shaped with simple tools on the end of the blow pipe. For the first time, a worker could mass-produce dozens of objects a day with glassblowing techniques. Most, but not all of these products (See Roman Luxury Glass ) became common and inexpensive. Soon anyone was able to own glass.

Casting: The generic name for a wide variety of techniques used to form glass in a mold. 
Core forming: The technique of forming a vessel by trailing or gathering molten glass around a core supported by a rod. After forming, the object is removed from the rod and annealed. After annealing, the core is removed by scraping. 
Cutting: The technique whereby glass is removed from the surface of an object by grinding it with a rotating wheel made of stone, wood, or metal, and an abrasive suspended in liquid. See also copper-wheel engraving, carving, and wheel engraving. 

A Brief History of Glass Blowing
All that is required to make glass is a little sand, a little soda, a little lime and a lot of heat. Legend tells us that Roman seaman, preparing to cook their evening meal on a beach, set their pots on top of stones of natron, a soda used in embalming the dead. As the cooking fire heated both these stones and the sand below, a strange liquid began to flow and that was the origin of manmade glass. More accurate history sets the beginning of glass production nearly twenty-five hundred years earlier than that 1st century account in Mesopotamia where potters fused sand and minerals while firing their clay into glass. Nearly a thousand years later one clever Mesopotamian managed to form a glass tube and blow a bubble at the end, creating the first blowpipe and hence the art of glassblowing. The first metal blowpipe came into widespread use in the 1st or second century before Christ and glass production soared, particularly in the Roman world, where glass became available to the rich and the poor. The decline of the Roman Empire brought a lull in glass making, but then came the rise of the Islamic world, with it's beautifully colored and delicately shaped glass. Throughout its history the production of glass would ebb and flow with the various kingdoms of the world. The Italian Renaissance saw Venice and Murano become centers of glass making, with kings and queens seeking out those cities' gossamer creations. The British Empire's glass tradition came to the New World with Jamestown's first colonists, half a dozen of whom were glassblowers.

Throughout this long history of glassblowing, skilled men endured the tremendous heat to coax beautiful forms from the fire using nothing more than their breath and a few simple tools. They worked hard to polish their skills to uniformity and precision, but even so each creation was as individual as the maker. In the 1820's Bakewell, Page, and Bakewell introduced the first real development in production glassblowing since the blowpipe, a development that would change how glass was used forever. They patented a process of mechanically pressing hot glass. Suddenly the time-consuming handcrafting that all glass had required was no longer necessary and nearly everything around the home began to be made of glass.

Artists who wished to work with glass were forced to the commercial factories that made all these utilitarian objects. In 1962 Harvery Littleton reversed this decline of art glass by discovering that some glass could be melted at a low enough temperature to allow the use of small home-studio furnaces. His discovery brought a rebirth of art glass studios, workshops and schools in the United States, a trend that has only accelerated both nationally and internationally. Once again, men and women stand in front of the glaring heat of furnaces and glory holes with a blowpipe in hand and a vision in their heads, ready to bring form to the molten liquid before them with their breath and a few tools, roughly the same tools the Romans used over two thousand years ago.

Medieval stained glass windows
from Esslingen am Neckar (Germany) 

Over 400 stained glass panes dating to the 13th and 14th centuries have been preserved in three churches in Esslingen. Practically all the themes found in the sculptural repertoire of the great French Cathedrals of this time are represented, including the Virtues and Vices. Even the everyday life of the citizens of Esslingen is reflected, in scenes from the Life of Mary.

The windows give a unique insight into the Medieval world, and into the technical and artistic aspects of the production of stained glass.

The central attraction is the windows from the City/Parish church St.Dionysus, made between 1280 and 1330 and recently painstakingly restored. Stained glass windows from the Frauenkirche (Church of our Lady), built by and for the citizens of Esslingen from 1320-1508, and from the choir of the (previously) Franciscan church can also be seen in this Internet exhibition.

How were stained glass windows made? 
The earliest examples of windows with figurative scenes are known from St.Remi in Reims from around the year 1000. 
Glass is a mixture of silicic acid and metal oxides, which solidifies after melting. It consists of up to 70% silicic acid, with up to 20% alkali's for durability and soda for fluidity. 

The only colours available in the Middle Ages were saffron-yellow, purplish-red, green, blue and copper-red. Miniatures often provided the models for the stained glass windows. One cut the small coloured glass panes to size and then painted them with black solder/flux? (Schwarzlot), a mixture of iron and copper powder. After 1300 silver solder/flux? (Silberlot) was also available, which allowed for a new range of colours, for example light yellow and reddish-yellow. The colours were melted onto the glass. 
The panes could be leaded as soon as they had cooled. The pliable lead strips could be easily bent to shape. The lead grid had to be carefully applied, as it provided the frame for the pictoral design. Any cracks were then filled with clay. Generally the complete window would then be inserted into the masonry window frame and fixed with mortar. 

Still Life with Plums

Flora C. Mace (American, b. 1949) and Joey Kirkpatrick (American, b. 1952)
United States, Seattle, Washington, 2000
Blown glass; carved and painted alderwood bowl
H: 28, Diam: 45 inches

Living in nature has taught us that everything we do is connected. Everything affects everything else. The Still Life, with its outsize scale, is meant to heighten our awareness of the world around us, including our dependence on nature and its cycles and seasons. We want to celebrate the aspects of everyday living that are often ignored, that we all ignore because of our busy lives.

Joey Kirkpatrick and Flora Mace met in 1979 at Pilchuck Glass School in Washington State. Kirkpatrick, a painter, and Mace, a sculptor share a passion for glassblowing, and they have spent their 23-year collaboration creating a diverse body of vessels and sculpture in wood and glass. Collaboration is not something studio artists are usually encouraged to pursue since establishing an individual identity can be essential. But Mace and Kirkpatrick are not afraid to be pioneers in this regard, nor have they hesitated in helping other women artists shape careers in glassblowing, traditionally a male-dominated field. 

Mace and Kirkpatrick taught at Pilchuck nearly every summer throughout the 1980s, and lived year-round in their hand-built cabin on the school's forest property for five years. These experiences had a powerful influence on the development of their artistic vocabulary - what materials they chose to work with, and the different themes they chose to explore. They learned that all experience is connected, that the process of living is a continuous play between mind and body, thought and word, philosophy and subsistence.

(Italy, Venice, Murano, about 1500)
Free-blown, enameled, and gilded blue glass
Height: 10 in. (25.4 cm)

Purchased with funds provided by the William Randolph Hearst Collection, the Decorative Arts Council Acquisition Fund, and other donors, 84.2.1

Although surviving Venetian glass dates only from the Renaissance, early archaeological and documentary evidence shows that glass was produced in Venice as early as the seventh century on the island of Torcello and in the city proper by the tenth century. In 1291, because of fire hazard, the glassworks of Venice were relocated to the island of Murano, where they remain today.

The fall of Christian Syria (about 1400) weakened the Islamic world's domination of the glass market and lent impetus to the Venetian industry. It is likely that refugee Syrian glassmakers settled in the city at that time, bringing with them techniques of enamel decoration and gilding inherited from the earlier glassmaking tradition of the Eastern Roman Empire. Venetian glassmakers came to rely heavily on Islamic vessel forms and decoration; by 1500 Venice had become the prime source of common and luxury glass for both Europe and the East.

The strong ties Venice established with the East are evident in this sumptuous gilded and enamel-decorated ewer. Its shape imitates Eastern metal prototypes. It is one of a group of ten glass vessels of identical shape but differing decoration. Assembled from four pieces (body, spout, handle, foot), the ewer is characteristically Venetian in concept and execution, but Islamic influences appear in the form of the body and in the band of white flame-patterned enamel on the neck. The shell gilding with red, green, and yellow enamel dots is typical of Venetian luxury glass of this period and was meant to imitate gem-encrusted vessels of gold or silver.

Louis Comfort Tiffany, the king of Art Deco Glass
Louis Comfort Tiffany was born in 1848 the son of a prominent New York jeweler. He could have been a wealthy wastrel on the $35 million he inherited from his father, but he wanted to make his own mark in the world.

As a young man, Tiffany studied art in New York and later in Paris. While in France, he met Emile Galle who was producing art glass in Nancy. Tiffany was, to an extent, influenced by him, and by the whole Art Nouveau movement then awakening. At that time, however, he was not thinking exclusively of glass; he was also fascinated with Japanese prints, Middle Eastern art, and ancient Roman pottery.

Upon returning to America, Tiffany continued painting in oils, but he enlarged his artistic activity to the whole field of decorative arts. In 1875, he founded Louis Comfort Tiffany and Associated Artists, which soon employed over one hundred skilled craftsmen. His interior designs were in great demand, and after restyling a suite of rooms in the White House in 1883, he was the most fashionable decorator in New York City.

All of Tiffany's later work grew out of his early success in interior design. From the start he used glass extensively, with tiles, lamps, murals, and windows as an intrinsic part of the style. Other furnishings made use of textiles, jewels (sometimes inset in glass), and pottery. His rooms were sumptious and incorporated a wealth of careful detail in which Middle Eastern and oriental influences could be seen.

At first, Tiffany used glass used by outside firms, but this did not give him total satisfaction. As his fascination with glass grew, he experimented with lustering techniques, largely inspired by the natural iridescence of ancient Roman glass. He patented his first glass-lustering technique in 1881. Favrile glass, the trademark for Tiffany handmade glass, resulted froom these experiments and, with the exception of Tiffany lamps, it is the ware for which he is best known.

Tiffany, no craftsman himself, died considerably less wealthy than he began, because of his own fascination with the capabilities of glass in the furnace. He was not content to leave the experiments to his skilled workers, and he would not abandon his own ideas even when Nash was satisfied, after repeated efforts, that they would not work. Such interference was not cost effective, but it was symptomatic of what he was trying to do. He was a leader and Tiffany glass was never a shadow of other men's work.

Galle, Daum, Moser and the Muller Brothers, all working in Art Nouveau, created their effects mainly on the bench by cutting, etching, and enameling glass. Even though Tiffany's very smalloutput of cameo glass was carved, the overwhelming majority of his ware were produced entirely in the furnace, and no Tiffany glass was ever enameled.

The Tiffany School of glassware was smaller than that of Galle, but of those who followed his ideas, Loetz of Bohemia is the best known. This firm also relied on the furnace rather than the workbench for decorative effects. Although Loetz produced a vast quantity of free-blown iridescent glass that was priced for a broad market, the quality of their glass remained excellent. The Loetz company acknowledged that its wares were inspired by L.C. Tiffany.

Tiffany develped a whole range of unique glassware by trying out and perfecting new techniques in the furnace. The glass itself was of the best quality, its colors achieved by the addition of metallic oxides, variable by temperature within the furnace.

His lustering technique, with its iridescent effect, was the most important because it was his hallmark, used in many different wares. This involved dissolving salts of metallic oxides in the molten glass, so creating the chosen colors -- soft greens, blues, golds, etc. The metallic content was then brought to the surface by subjecting the glass to a reducing flame and spraying with another chloride. This treatment caused the surface to crackle into a profusionof tiny lines that refracted light.

The skill of the blower was paramount in this, because Tiffany glass was free blown. Speed was necessary to achieve the desired effect before the molten glass cooled. With intricate Tiffany specialties, like the peacock feather motif or a jack-in-the-Pulpit vase, this was no mean feat.

Specialty glasswares are rare and therefore expensive. Lava glass, with its glorious golden trails on rough-surfaced basalt, and Cypriote glass, rolled in fragmented crumbs of glass to give the impression of old Roman glass, are examples of iridized pieces of Tiffany ware. Damascened glass is another such specialty, developed c.1910, which incoporates striped of golden luster giving the appearance of damascened steel when blown into wavy stripes. Agate glass exhibits a marbled effect resulting from a misture of various colored glasses.

Some items decorated in this manner were cased with a layer of clear glass. Such pieces are sometimes called Tiffany paperweight glass. Aquamarine glass, made in much the same way, was embedded with marine decoration, wavy fronds of green with fishes or pebbles, in heavy green glass intended to simulate the sea.

Tiffany glass comes in all sorts of colors and can give the impression of having been formed by pure chance. The vast majority of his lustered wares were vases, but a few dishes and bowls were also produced. Like all worthwhile products, Tiffany glass was often faked, so that great care must be taken when buying; prices are too high for mistakes.

Tiffany retired in 1918, but he kept a watchful eye on the company. Nash carried on the business, but his later work, fighting a rearguard action against Art Deco, was not of the same quality. In 1928, L.C. Tiffany severed all connection with the firm, withdrawing permission to use his name.

By his vision and energy, L.C. Tiffany succeeded in blending classical motifs with bold new techniques in glassmaking to create a distinctive American art form. The demand for Tiffany glass among today's collectors attests to the lasting value of his work.

Features On Site
Art Museums
Featured Artist

Medieval stained glass windows
From Esslingen am Neckar (Germany)
From the Steinhövel window, Speyer 1280
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Christ Falls on the Road to Calvary
Reverse painting 
Probably Southern Tirol, Hall(?), about 1570-1580
Colorless non-lead glass; flat (window) glass, painted and gilded. Wood frame.
H. 40 cm, W. 40 cm.
Featured Artist

Tiffany Glass Window by
Louis Comfort Tiffany

His windows were pictures in glass. Like those of great cathedrals (which also employed his services) Tiffany windows were intended to be looked at, rather than through. The glass was clear or opaque, vari-colored, sometimes convoluted, and designed to reflect light like a fine gemstone.
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Tiffany Glass Window by Louis Comfort
Tiffany Windows and murals contained small pieces of glass, cut to shape and leaded, creating a dazzling, unified pattern, Opaque glass tiles were also used to good effect as they adorned walls, mantlepieces, and screens.
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(Italy, Venice, Murano, about 1500)
Free-blown, enameled, and gilded blue glass
Height: 10 in. (25.4 cm)
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Box with Indian Bottles
A matching set of four flasks with gilded brass funnel in a wooden case
Second quarter of the 18th century
India, Gujerat
Mold-blown, gilded, enameled
H. (bottles) 15 cm; D. 6 cm, W. 6 cm
Featured Artist

Tiffany Glass and Silver Vase
Tiffany glassware was at its best from the late 1890s to 1918. Many of the glass forms were perfected after 1900 and were manufactured under several company names. Most of it was signed, either stamped or engraved around the pontil, with a model number and the initials "LCT," "Tiffany Studios N.Y." (responsible for most of the bronze wares), or "Louis C. Tiffany Favrile". Forged Tiffany marks are not always obvious, but fakes rarely measure up to Tiffany standards.
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Phänomen ("Phenomenon") Vase
Franz Hofstätter (German, 1871-1958) and Hubert Gessner (Austrian, 1871-1943)Bohemia, Kláterský Mlýn (Klostermühle), Johann Loetz Witwe, 1902
Mold-blown and hot-worked glass; iridized 
H: 16 3/4 inches
Featured Artist

Tiffany Blown Glass Vase
Tiffany set up his own glasshouse at Corona, Long Island and put a brilliant Englishman, Arthur J. Nash, in charge. His previous companies had all been concerned with interior decoration; this one, Tiffany Furnaces, concentrated on decorative blown glassware.
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Tiffany Floral Glass Vase Louis Comfort Tiffany 
Many Tiffany specialties were developed from ancient forms and styles. For example, the technique for creating millefiori had been used 2000 years ago, but not by Tiffany's methods or with his luster finish. The closely packed "thousand flowers " of millefiori, most familiar in French paperweights, were formed by fusing tiny rods of colored glass. Tiffany did not place segments of these rods in close proximity as in paperweights. Rather, in the celebrated Tiffany floral vases, a patch of opalescent glass and the whole was reheated, allowing the well-separated flowers to be molded into the body before the piece received its iridescent finish.
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Still Life with Plums
Flora C. Mace (American, b. 1949) and Joey Kirkpatrick (American, b. 1952)
United States, Seattle, Washington, 2000
Blown glass; carved and painted alderwood bowl
H: 28, Diam: 45 inches.
The process used by the artists to make their glass fruits is unique. As in painting, they build layers of color on their glass forms by sifting colored, crushed glass powders onto the hot glass during the blowing process. This technique has enabled them to create realistic color and textures for their fruits. The fruits in this Still Life include a pear, green apple, Italian prune, plum, lemon, tangelo, red apple, greengage plum, and peach.
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Tiffany Lamp
Tiffany lamps quickly became popular at home and abroad. The tiny pieces of glass were set in a natural pattern, featuring flowers, butterflies, or dragonflies.
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Tiffany Lamp
Later, some shades were made in folds from panels of pressed glass, creating the appearance of a tweedy fabric.
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Tiffany Lamp
The bronze base complemented the leaded shade.


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All rights reserved. Revised: June 27, 2007 .