Contemporary Issues of Stained Glass

Following on the heels of William Morris and Burne-Jones (stained glass traditionalists) was the development of Art Nouveau, inspired by the world of nature and curvilinear forms. The stained glass evolving from this movement was first exhibited in Paris in 1896 (Brown 149). A key architect of in this time was Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928). He used glass panels with sinuous, geometric motifs in architectural settings such as the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street (1904). He believed in design totality, and so designed the entire structure from building to carpet (Brown 149-150).

The popularity of stained glass in the 20th c. increased its demand in the domestic context. It was now being used in private houses, restaurants, hotels, and as part of interior decoration (Brown 151). The Church, however, remained the leading patron, and the majority of commissions for stained glass continued to be for churches (Brown 152).

This created a struggle for artists attempting to work outside of the ecclesiastical boundaries. There was such a standard of religious motif and lead and glass use and style that it was hard to break free, and if an artist did, it was not always easy to obtain patrons. American painter, John La Farge, however, was successful in his experimentation outside these boundaries. He recreated his own paintings in colored glass (Lewis 157). He limited painted detail, yet created figurative designs with a unique sensitivity (Brown 154). Specifically he looked for glass that was irregular, streaked, textured, or imperfect. He layered it to create richer and deeper hues, essentially mixing new colors by combing two shades. La Farge attempted to create in glass the illusion of shading and depth evident in 19th c. painting (Lewis 157). Oriental influences became evident in his work. A famous piece, titled "Peonies Blown in the Wind," was created for a Newport mansion and inspired by Japanese art (Lewis 157).

Artists such as Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959) began to experiment with the design aspect of glass. He worked with more geometric and angular shapes and often stylized natural forms (Brown 154-155). A good example of this are his windows made for the Avery Coonley playhouse (Brown 149) which are tall panels with brightly colored circles, and checker board patterns. Additionally He used quite a bit of colorless glass in order to allow more light to enter into the interior space of his buildings (Brown 155).

World War II was responsible for the destruction of much of the stained glass of Germany. This destruction provided an opportunity for the post-war generation to develop new ideas in the medium (Brown 159) such as the use of lead as more than a purely necessary part of the stained glass manufacturing process. Johannes Schreiter (b. 1930) was a forerunner of this method. His ideology was primarily involved with a dialogue about the tensions and harmony of space. He use wandering lead lines starkly against large areas of completely unpainted glass (Brown 160). An interesting example of this is his window installed in the library of the London Hospital in 1990 which has a distinctly medical theme (Brown 160) complete with the depiction of a heart rate monitor.

In America Louis Comfort Tiffany dominated the world of stained glass from the 1870’s onward. The glass blowing techniques he developed became a major influence in the decorative arts (Moor). His studio created windows, wall panels, screens, and blown-glass vessels. His vessels took stained glass out of the realm of the functional. These vessels progressed to designs with a tendency toward swirling iridescent patterns which are part of the glass itself. Tiffany used organic contours where the base, for example, became a living plant, and the top became a living flower (Lewis 156). Additionally, these living forms were simply for pleasure and aesthetic appreciation, some having no real function.

This decorative aspect of stained glass demonstrates the culmination of contemporary thinking. In the 90’s stained glass has had impact, architecturally, on shopping centers, airports, and other public spaces (Brown 153). Its use has expanded into homes where it appears in doors, stairwells, bathrooms, kitchens, internal screens, and conservatories. Stained glass, whether religious or secular in subject, is no longer just for churches.

Anna B. Pagnucci

Works Cited

Brown, Sarah. Stained Glass an Illustrated History. New York: Crescent Books, 1992.

Lee Lawrence. The Appreciation of Stained Glass. London: Oxford University Press, 1977.

Lewis, Richard & Susan I. The Power of Art. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1994.

Moor, Andrew. Contemporary Stained Glass, a guide to the potential of modern stained glass in architecture. London: Mitchell Beazley Publishers, 1989.

Phelps, Paul. Interview with author. 12 Nov. 1998.

Tansey, Richard G. & Fred S. Kleiner. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages. 10th ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 1996.

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