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A Novel

Written by Susan VreelandAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Susan Vreeland



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On Sale: January 11, 2011
Pages: 448 | ISBN: 978-0-679-60451-8
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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

NATIONAL BESTSELLER

It’s 1893, and at the Chicago World’s Fair, Louis Comfort Tiffany makes his debut with a luminous exhibition of innovative stained-glass windows that he hopes will earn him a place on the international artistic stage. But behind the scenes in his New York studio is the freethinking Clara Driscoll, head of his women’s division, who conceives of and designs nearly all of the iconic leaded-glass lamps for which Tiffany will long be remembered. Never publicly acknowledged, Clara struggles with her desire for artistic recognition and the seemingly insurmountable challenges that she faces as a professional woman. She also yearns for love and companionship, and is devoted in different ways to five men, including Tiffany, who enforces a strict policy: He does not employ married women. Ultimately, Clara must decide what makes her happiest—the professional world of her hands or the personal world of her heart.

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Excerpt

chapter 1

9781400068166|excerpt

Vreeland: CLARA AND MR. TIFFANY

Peacock

I opened the beveled-glass door under the sign announcing Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company in ornate bronze. A new sign with a new name. Fine. I felt new too.

In the ground-floor showroom of the five-story building, stained-glass windows hung from the high ceiling, and large mosaic panels leaned against the walls. Despite the urgency of my business, I couldn’t resist taking a quick look at the free-form vases, bronze desk sets, pendulum clocks, and Art Nouveau candelabras. It was the oil lamps that bothered me. Their blown-glass shades sat above squat, bulbous bases too earthbound to be elegant. Mr. Tiffany was capable of more grace than that.

A new young floor manager tried to stop me at the marble stairway. I gave him a look that implied, I was here before you were born, and pushed his arm away as though it were a Coney Island turnstile.

On the second floor, I peered into Mr. Tiffany’s large office-studio. With a gardenia pinned to his lapel, he sat at his desk behind a row of potted orchids. In February, no less! Such were the extravagances of wealth. His formerly trim bottle brush of a mustache had sprouted into robust ram’s horns.

His own paintings hung on the walls—Citadel Mosque of Old Cairo, with tall, slender minarets, and Market Day at Tangier, with a high tower on a distant hill. A new one depicted a lily on a tall stalk lording over a much shorter one. Amusing. Little Napoléon’s self-conscious preoccupation with height was alive and well.

New tall pedestals draped with bedouin shawls flanked the fireplace. On them Oriental vases held peacock feathers. In this his design sense went awry, sacrificed to his flamboyancy. If he wanted to appear taller, the pedestals should have been shorter. Someday I would tell him.

“Excuse me.”

“Why, Miss Wolcott!”

“Mrs. Driscoll. I got married, you remember.”

“Oh, yes. You can’t be wanting employment, then. My policy hasn’t—”

I pulled back my shoulders. “As of two weeks ago, I’m a single woman again.”

He was too much the gentleman to ask questions, but he couldn’t hide the gleam in his eyes.

“I’ve come to inquire if you have work for me. That is, if my performance pleased you before.” A deliberate prompt. I didn’t want to be hired because of my need or his kindness. I wanted my talent to be the reason he wanted me back.

“Indeed” was all he offered.

What now to fill the suspended moment? His new projects. I asked. His eyebrows leapt up in symmetrical curves.

“A Byzantine chapel for the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago next year. Four times bigger than the Paris Exposition Universelle. It will be the greatest assembly of artists since the fifteenth century.” He counted on his fingers and then drummed them on the desk. “Only fifteen months away. In 1893 the name of Louis Comfort Tiffany will be on the lips of millions!” He stood up and swung open his arms wide enough to embrace the whole world.

I sensed his open palm somewhere in the air behind the small of my back, ushering me to his massive, carved mahogany exhibit table to see his sketches and watercolors. “Two round windows, The Infancy of Christ and Botticelli’s Madonna and Child, will be set off by a dozen scenic side windows.”

A huge undertaking. How richly fortunate. Surely there would be opportunity for me to shine.

Practically hopping from side to side, he made a show of slinging down one large watercolor after another onto the Persian carpet, each one a precise, fine-edged rendering of what he wanted the window to be.

“Gracious! You’ve been on fire. Go slower! Give me a chance to admire each one.”

He unrolled the largest watercolor. “An eight-foot mosaic behind the altar depicting a pair of peacocks surrounded by grapevines.”

My breath whistled between my open lips. Above the peacocks facing each other, he had transformed the standard Christian icon of a crown of thorns into a shimmering regal headdress for God the King, the thorns replaced by large glass jewels in true Tiffany style.

Astonishing how he could get mere watercolors so deep and saturated, so like lacquer that they vibrated together as surely as chords of a great church pipe organ. Even the names of the hues bore an exotic richness. The peacocks’ necks in emerald green and sapphire blue. The tail feathers in vermilion, Spanish ocher, Florida gold. The jewels in the crown mandarin yellow and peridot. The background in turquoise and cobalt. Oh, to get my hands on those gorgeous hues. To feel the coolness of the blue glass, like solid pieces of the sea. To chip the gigantic jewels for the crown so they would sparkle and send out shafts of light. To forget everything but the glass before me and make of it something resplendent.

When I could trust my voice not to show too much eagerness, I said, “I see your originality is in good health. Only you would put peacocks in a chapel.”

“Don’t you know?” he said in a spoof of incredulity. “They symbolized eternal life in Byzantine art. Their flesh was thought to be incorruptible.”

“What a lucky find for you, that convenient tidbit of information.”

He chuckled, so I was on safe ground.

He tossed down more drawings. “A marble-and-mosaic altar surrounded by mosaic columns, and a baptismal font of opaque leaded glass and mosaic.”

“This dome is the lid of the basin? In opaque leaded glass?”

He looked at it with nothing short of love, and showed me its size with outstretched arms as though he were hugging the thing.

I was struck by a tantalizing idea. “Imagine it reduced in size and made of translucent glass instead. Once you figure how to secure the pieces in a dome, that could be the method and the shape of a lampshade. A wraparound window of, say”—I looked around the room—“peacock feathers.”

He jerked his head up with a startled expression, the idea dawning on him as if it were his own.

“Lampshades in leaded glass,” he said in wonder, his blue eyes sparking.

“Just think where that could go,” I whispered.

“I am. I am!” He tugged at his beard. “It’s brilliant! An entirely new product. We’ll be the first on the market. And not just peacock featherth. Flowerth too!”

Excitement overtook his struggle to control his lisp, which surfaced only when he spoke with passion.

“But the chapel first. This will be our secret for now.”

Men harboring secrets—I seemed attracted to them unwittingly.

“Besides the window department and the mosaic department, I have six women working on the chapel windows. I’ve always thought that women have greater sensitivity to nuances of color than men do. You’ve proved that yourself, so I want more women. You’ll be in charge of them.”

“That will suit me just fine.”


From the Hardcover edition.
Susan Vreeland

About Susan Vreeland

Susan Vreeland - Clara and Mr. Tiffany
Coming out of the Louvre for the first time in 1971, dizzy with new love, I stood on Pont Neuf and made a pledge to myself that the art of this newly discovered world in the Old World would be my life companion. Never had history been more vibrant, its voices more resonating, its images more gripping. On this first trip to Europe, I felt myself a pilgrim: To me, even secular places such as museums and ruins were imbued with the sacred. Painting, sculpture, architecture, music, religious and social history--I was swept away with all of it, wanting to read more, to learn languages, to fill my mind with rich, glorious, long-established culture wrought by human desire, daring, and faith. I wanted to keep a Gothic cathedral alive in my heart. My imagination exploded with the gaiety of the Montmartre dancers at Moulin de la Galette, the laborer whose last breath in his flattened chest was taken under the weight of a stone fallen from the Duomo under construction in Florence, the apprentice who cut himself preparing glass for the jeweled windows of Sainte Chapelle, the sweating quarry worker aching behind his crowbar at Carrara to release a marble that would become the Pietà. In a fashion I couldn't imagine then, I have been true to this pledge. I have brought to life the daughter of the Dutch painter Vermeer who secretly yearned to paint the Delft she loved. I've given voice to the Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi, raped at seventeen by her painting teacher, the first woman to paint large scale figures from history and scripture previously reserved for men. On my own continent, I've entered deep British Columbian forests with Emily Carr, whose love for native people took her to places proper white women didn't go. My imagination has followed Modigliani's daughter around Paris searching for shreds of information about the father she never knew. I've imagined myself a poor wetnurse, bereaved of her own baby so that a rich woman, Berthe Morisot, might paint. I've taken my seventeenth century Tuscan shoemaker to Rome to have his longed-for religious experience under the Sistine ceiling. I've followed Renoir's models to cabarets and boat races, to war and elopement, to the Folies-Bergère and luncheons by the Seine.

Now some facts as to how I arrived there: After graduating from San Diego State University, I taught high school English in San Diego beginning in 1969 and retired in 2000 after a 30-year career. Concurrently, I began writing features for newspapers and magazines in 1980, taking up subjects in art and travel, and publishing 250 articles. I ventured into fiction in 1988 with What Love Sees, a biographical novel of a woman's unwavering determination to lead a full life despite blindness. The book was made into a CBS television movie starring Richard Thomas and Annabeth Gish. My short fiction has appeared in The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, New England Review, Confrontation, Alaska Quarterly Review, Manoa, Connecticut Review, Calyx, Crescent Review, So To Speak and elsewhere.

My art-related fiction, products of my pledge on Pont Neuf:Girl in Hyacinth Blue, 1999, and a Hallmark Hall of Fame production in 2003, tracing an alleged Vermeer painting through the centuries revealing its influence on those who possessed it.
The Passion of Artemisia, 2002, disclosing the inner life of Artemisia Gentileschi, Italian Baroque painter who empowered her female heroines with her own courage. The Forest Lover, 2004, following the rebel Canadian painter, Emily Carr, seeking the spiritual content of her beloved British Columbia by painting its wild landscape and its native totemic carvings.
Life Studies, 2005, stories revealing Impressionist and Post-Impressionist painters from points of view of people who knew them, and showing that ordinary people can have profound encounters with art.
Luncheon of the Boating Party, 2007, illuminating the vibrant, explosive Parisian world of la vie moderne surrounding Renoir as he creates his masterwork depicting the French art of living.

Selected awards:

New York Times Best Sellers: Girl in Hyacinth Blue, The Passion of Artemisia, Luncheon of the Boating Party.
Book Sense Pick, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 2007.
Book Sense Year's Favorites, for The Passion of Artemisia, 2002.
Book Sense Book of the Year Finalist, Girl in Hyacinth Blue, 1999.
International Dublin Literary Award, Nominee, for Girl in Hyacinth Blue, 2001.
Independent Publisher Magazine, Storyteller of the Year, for Girl in Hyacinth Blue, 1999.
Foreword Magazine's Best Novel of the Year, for

Girl in Hyacinth Blue

,1999.
San Diego Book Awards' Theodor Geisel Award and Best Novel of the Year, 1999, for Girl; 2002 for Artemisia, and 2005 for Life Studies.

My work has been translated into twenty-five languages.

So, what have I learned from all of this? That entering the mind and heart of painters has taught me to see, and to be more appreciative of the beauties of the visible world. That I can agree with Renoir when he said, "I believe that I am nearer to God by being humble before his splendor (Nature)." That people are hungry for real lives behind the paintings. That readers' lives have been enriched, their sensibilities sharpened, even their goals for their own creative endeavors given higher priorities in their lives.

And especially this: Thanks to art, instead of seeing only one world and time period, our own, we see it multiplied and can peer into other times, other worlds which offer windows to other lives. Each time we enter imaginatively into the life of another, it's a small step upwards in the elevation of the human race. Consider this: Where there is no imagination of others' lives, there is no human connection. Where there is no human connection, there is no chance for compassion to govern. Without compassion, then loving kindness, human understanding, peace all shrivel. Individuals become isolated, and the isolated can turn resentful, narrow, cruel; they can become blinded, and that's where prejudice, holocausts, terrorism and tragedy hover. Art--and literature--are antidotes to that.

Praise

Praise

“Vreeland’s ability to make this complex historical novel as luminous as a Tiffany lamp is nothing less than remarkable.”—The Washington Post

“A novel as sparkling and elegant as a Tiffany lampshade . . . a sensitive portrayal of women’s struggles in the nineteenth century . . . [Susan Vreeland] has captured the tone of an era. . . . The consistent elegance and vitality of her prose make reading her book a pleasure.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune
 
“As she did for a Vermeer painting in Girl in Hyacinth Blue, Vreeland traces the secret history of an objet d’art—this time, the iconic Tiffany lamp. . . . A fascinating look at at turn-of-the-century New York City.”—People (4 out of 4 stars)
 
“Vreeland’s writing is so graceful, her research so exhaustive, that a reader can’t help becoming enfolded in this fascinating world.”—Los Angeles Times
 
“There’s no excuse for any reader of high-quality literary fiction to let this novel pass by.”—Booklist (starred review)


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