Stained glass windows are most often found in houses of worship but they are also in other public buildings including hospitals, retirement homes, hotels, as well as private homes. Having stained glass in homes of the wealthy was particularly popular in the United States during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Smith Museum at the Navy Pier in Chicago was the first museum in the U. S. to be used exclusively for exhibits of stained glass windows and displays the artistry of different cultures, styles and times of the city through this medium of decorative arts.
From its founding in 1833 through the end of the 19th century, Chicago’s population grew so fast it was the second largest city in the nation by 1870. European immigrants, particularly Irish Catholics and Germans, arrived looking for work on the railroad, in stockyards or in factories. The rapid expansion meant buildings, streets and sidewalks sprang up quickly; often made of wood. After the 1871 fire resulted in loss of life and the destruction of 18,000 buildings, strict building codes and landscaping designs were put in place to rebuild and beautify the city. This began Chicago’s Gilded Age.
The Smith Museum exhibit spans from the 1870s to present day. Many of the windows were originally installed in buildings in the Chicago area and showcase a variety of historic, religious and decorative scenes displayed in different styles. The exhibit is divided into four main categories; Victorian, Prairie, Modern and Contemporary. All the windows were designed by prominent artists from European and American studios.
One of the most well-known names in stained glass is Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933). Born in New York City, he began working with glass in 1873 and opened his own studio in 1885. He was part of the Art Nouveau Movement in the late 19th century. In 1882, he was commissioned by President Chester A. Arthur to redecorate the White House. Part of his redesign included adding Tiffany glass to light fixtures, windows, and a floor-to-ceiling stained glass screen in the Entrance Hall. When Chicago held the World’s Columbian Exhibition in 1893, also known as the Chicago World’s Fair, the artist designed the Tiffany Chapel with stained glass windows depicting Christian themes.
The 13 Tiffany windows on display at the Smith Museum are a private collection by the Richard H. Driehaus Gallery of Stained Glass. Each window uses several types of glass. The different colors, techniques and layers create a finished product that is rich with color and detail. The windows represent both religious and secular themes.
The Rapelye Memorial from St. John’s Episcopal Church in New Jersey, illustrates Tiffany’s preference for floral and landscape scenes in a memorial. He used passionflowers to symbolize the crucifixion of Christ and poppies for the resurrection.
The Girl with Cherry Blossoms was commissioned for a client’s home, perhaps by someone who wanted a portrait done of a family member. Tiffany reserved the use of enamel only for faces, hands and feet.
John LaFarge (1835-1910) was also born in New York. As a contemporary of Tiffany, his stained glass was said to rival that of the European churches in the Middle Ages. He was also a painter, illustrator, writer and decorator. His religious-themed windows appear in several churches in New York and Boston and several other cities.
Many of the wealthy homes built in Chicago during the late 19th and early 20th centuries had stained glass in windows, doors, above the doorway or as a skylight. Art Nouveau was popular at that time and much of the decorative glass used in private homes was of that style.
Architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) built a series of houses in the Chicago area known as “prairie houses” because they were supposed to complement the landscape. The stained glass design he used had simpler geometric shapes.
The Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows has 150 decorative windows in its permanent exhibit. Some of the windows were from the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. Visitors are at eye level with the exhibit and can view the details at close range. Featured 20th-century artists from Chicago are Roger Brown and Ed Paschke. For more information about the stained glass at the Smith Museum, the museum website and Navy Pier schedule links are listed below.
By Cynthia Collins
Top photo: Four Seasons by Alphonse Mucha (1896)
Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows
Chicago Navy Pier – Schedule