All About Glass

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Drawings for American Stained Glass

All About Glass

Drawings for American %%Stained Glass%%, a 2010 exhibition at the Museum’s Rakow Research Library, showcased 19th- and 20th-century designs from studios and artists across the United States. These designs illustrated the great diversity in style and subject matter in modern American stained glass, as well as how designers used regional subject matter to make the art form truly American.

American %%stained glass%% drawings encompass all the major purposes and styles in the art form’s long history. Archaeological evidence suggests that painting on window glass began as early as the sixth century and very possibly earlier, during Roman times. Early “%%stained glass%%” windows were actually pieces of colored glass assembled to create a patterned window, similar to the mosaic process. True stained glass—in which the glass is colored through the application of silver sulfide or silver chloride, fired, and then assembled—originated in the Middle Ages. During this period, windows became popular as a way of dazzling the eye and illustrating Bible stories for a largely illiterate society. Advances in architecture allowed windows to take up larger areas of cathedral walls. 

Window Design, Tiffany StudiosMedieval %%stained glass%% was as functional as it was beautiful, allowing light into cathedrals and serving as devotional literature for the masses. Peter of Roissy, chancellor of the School of Chartres Cathedral between 1208 and 1213, wrote, “Paintings on the windows are Divine writings, for they direct the light of the true son, that is to say God, into the interior of the church, that is to say the hearts of the faithful, thus illuminating them.”

The medieval tradition of using %%stained glass%% as Biblical storytelling is reflected in some modern American %%stained glass%% designs, such as the four-panel series, %%Stained Glass%% Window Designs for Days of Creation, produced by Gorham Studios in the 19th or early 20th century, which illustrates a selection of the Book of Genesis.

%%Stained glass%% continued to illustrate religious stories in the Renaissance, but during this time they increasingly began to embrace secular themes as the expanding middle class allowed those outside the clergy to afford them for public buildings and private homes. The use of %%stained glass%% windows for non-religious purposes continued into the modern era and is embodied by the %%drawing%% from the exhibit, Window Design of Sir Galahad Kneeling, by Judson Studios (probably 1909). Arthurian legend, such as the legend of Sir Galahad and the Holy Grail, was often used as a motif in %%stained glass%% between 1900 and 1930, according to the Camelot Project at the University of Rochester, to emphasize purity of spirit and memorialize young men who died in war.

Fruit and shells, John La Farge, United States, 1882-1885.

%%Stained glass%% also took on a decorative rather than symbolic or storytelling aspect in the modern era. American artist and writer John La Farge’s watercolor and pencil %%drawing%%, Fruit and shells (1882 – 1885), is an example of a decorative design, featuring a natural motif in the form of grapes and a scallop shell arabesque. La Farge, along with Louis Comfort Tiffany, introduced the style of opalescent glass, which became popular in %%stained glass%% window designs in the late 19th century. During this period of American %%stained glass%%, designers increasingly turned to secular themes and began to focus on the intrinsic qualities of the glass itself, as opposed to any painting or staining applied to the glass.

Window design of abstract landscape

Purely abstract %%stained glass%% designs became popular in the 20th century. An example of this is Robert Sowers’ design for the stained glass window in American Airlines terminal 8 at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, installed in 1960 (dismantled in 2008 during renovations).The window’s blend of red, blue, white, and purple panels was intended to suggest movement and power and was, as terminal architect Robert Allan Jacobs described it, “the practical working symbol of the Jet Age, combining the aesthetic and functional expression of aviation progress.” The Rakow’s exhibition included both a small-%%scale%% design of the window, possibly intended for use on an airport model, as well as a larger, more precise iteration of the design.

Whether illustrating Bible stories as in the Middles Ages, depicting the conversion of Native Americans to Christianity, or expressing decorative or abstract ideals, American %%stained glass%% designs in the 19th and 20th centuries reflect a unique continuum of purpose, style, and aesthetics.

Published on September 27, 2011