It was a perfect September day. Golden sunshine, bright blue sky, temperature in the high 70's, low humidity. "Camelot" weather, where "it never rains until after sundown." More to the point, since I live in Philadelphia, it was a "Dream Garden" kind of day.
On this delightful day, my wife, Anne, and I visited The Dream Garden, a magnificent mosaic located in the historic "Old City" section of Philly. Created over a century ago by Maxfield Parrish and Louis Comfort Tiffany, it is one of the greatest mosaics in the world and it is right here, in Philadelphia.
It is always a sunny day in Philadelphia's Dream Garden. But the dramatic story of the creation of this vision of earthly paradise has plenty of stormy weather.
Cyrus Curtis, who founded the Curtis Publishing Company in 1891, desired a grand work of art for the lobby of his new office building, opened in 1910. The Curtis Building, now Curtis Center, is located at 601-645 Walnut Street, Philadelphia, across the street from the park behind Independence Hall.
The Curtis Building served as the headquarters of one of America's great media empires. Cyrus Curtis and his talented son-in-law, Edward W. Bok, guided their flagship magazines, The Saturday Evening Post and Ladies Home Journal, to readership in the millions and immense profits.
Curtis and Bok wanted a work of art to match the influence and vision of their publications and they got what they wanted - eventually.
Edwin Austin Abbey (1852-1911) was commissioned to create an appealing, accessible work of art, suited to the taste of the readers of the Curtis publications. A Philadelphia-born painter with an international reputation, Abbey was a member of the Royal Academy in London, a rare honor for an American. He had played an important role in the American watercolor renaissance following the Civil War and was an accomplished mural painter.
For the Curtis Building, Abbey planned a painting in the spirit of Raphael's School of Athens. The mural would depict Plato and his disciples engaged in discussion in the Grove of Academe.
Abbey set to work on the preparatory sketches. And then, suddenly, in August 1911, he died.
Abbey's death was a heavy blow but this moment of adversity also brought Edward W. Bok, Vice President of Curtis, to the center stage of the saga of The Dream Garden. Three dynamic men of genius would play leading roles in the creation of this masterpiece, with Bok as a Lorenzo the Magnificent-style patron.
Following Abbey's death, Bok offered the mural commission to John Singer Sargent, who declined. Howard W. Pyle, America's most renowned illustrator, based in nearby Wilmington, Delaware, was next on Bok's list. Pyle, however, died suddenly in November 1911.
Over the next two years, a succession of artists were considered and rejected for the mural, including Louis Comfort Tiffany (1848-1933), the leading decorative artist in the U.S.
Bok esteemed Tiffany's luminous mosaic technique, known as favrile glass, but rejected the designs he submitted. Finally, a French artist, Louis Boutet de Monvel, was selected. Then, on March 16, 1913, Boutet de Monvel died.
The entire project to transform the lobby of the Curtis Building into a showcase of truth and beauty seemed jinxed.
"The hoodoo that is following me in regard to the panels is simply amazing," Bok wrote, "... the moment I have mural relations with a man he seems to run off the earth."
After Boutet de Monvel's death, Bok turned to the hugely popular artist/illustrator, Maxfield Parrish, for a design which Tiffany and his artisans would translate into mosaic. Parrish, the "master of make-believe" had local Philadelphia roots like Abbey and Pyle. But he was in remarkably good health and would, in fact, live until 1966.
It is odd that Bok waited so long to approach Parrish. He and the artist had worked together on a number of successful projects. Parrish was completing a series of murals for the Ladies' Dining Room at the Curtis Building while Bok searched in vain for an artist for the lobby mural. Moreover, Parrish was a member of Bok's design selection team.
There is no easy answer to this riddle. But it is revealing that the design Parrish submitted, a three by nine foot panel painting, was not a "grove of Academe" scene. Instead, it portrayed a "dream garden."
Based in part on Parrish's own garden at his home in New Hampshire, the design is radically different from a reworking of Raphael's School of Athens. Except for two small sculptures featuring Commedia dell'Arte masks at the bottom of the design, there is no sign of the hand of man. No Greek-style architecture, no pensive philosophers.
What Parrish's design depicted was an idyllic refuge from the hard-edged industrial world on the streets of modern American cities.
Parish offered a beguiling scene to viewers, who could imagine themselves stepping over the lobby threshold into the sylvan setting of The Dream Garden. Bathed in golden light, meditating among the clumps of fragrant flowers and majestic trees, visitors to the Curtis Building would be "at one with nature."
Bok accepted the design, paying Parrish $2,000 for the picture. Tiffany would receive $40,000 to create the mosaic. Work began in 1914.
The key to success was matching Tiffany's favrile glass technique to Parrish's radiant color scheme. The favrile glass firing technique, patented by Tiffany in 1894, treats molten glass with metallic oxides which ingrain color throughout the glass, not just on the surface. The signature iridescent quality of Tiffany Glass is the result.
Rather than continuing with a detailed recapitulation of the production process of The Dream Garden, I will quote from the brilliant - and succinct - summation on the descriptive plaque in the lobby of the Curtis Center.
The mosaic's images are rendered in "favrile" glass, following a complex hand I firing process developed by Tiffany to produce over 100,000 pieces of glass in 260 colors. Most of the glass was set in 24 panels in Tiffany's New York studios. Thirty artisans worked for a year on the mosaic, and the installation of the panels in this location took six months. The finished work was hailed by art critics as "a veritable wonder-piece" at the official unveiling in 1916. The amazing variety of opaque, translucent, and transparent glass, entirely lighted from the lobby achieves perspective effects that have never been duplicated.
The unveiling of The Dream Garden, first in Tiffany's studio in New York and then in Philadelphia, created a sensation. Bok was mightily pleased, as were the throngs of art lovers who visited the previews.
Even art critics approved of The Dream Garden, one going so far as to say, "Mere words are only aggravating in describing this amazing picture."
Maxfield Parrish, however, was not pleased. He flatly refused to attend the opening reception in Philadelphia or to send a conciliatory message.
Parrish's dislike of The Dream Garden mosaic is hard to fathom. He only visited Tiffany's studios on two occasions, at the beginning of the project and once more, as work neared completion. He raised no major criticism at that time.
Bok lavished praise on Parrish, printing and distributing a handsome color print of the the original painting which Tiffany and his team labored so diligently to translate into mosaic. Except for a remark that the mosaic lacked the "painterliness" of his original design, Parrish retreated into an aggrieved silence.
Unless a stash of recriminatory letters comes to light, it is unlikely that a definitive reason for Parrish's disapproval of The Dream Garden mosaic will be discovered.
Anne was able to take some superb close-up photos of The Dream Garden mosaic tiles. These enabled me to study images of these bits of favrile glass on the computer screen in a way that I could not by direct examination in the Curtis Center Lobby. Over and over again, I was astonished by the artistry, as well as the technical skill, of Tiffany and his team.
This mastery is particularly evident in the way that Tiffany and his artisans were able to recreate the orange glow of early morning light bathing the exposed mountain face. Shades of light purple evoke the shadowy recesses, still untouched by the dawn.
All of this visual magic was achieved with thousands of small pieces of colored glass covering a vast space measuring fifteen by forty-nine feet.
As if this was not impressive enough, the very moment of sunrise is articulated by a golden line of light, outlining the summit of a mountain, above and to the left of the scene just described. Dawn awakens the world, not in one blazing moment, but in a gradual process, a sublime transformation which the Tiffany team captured with astonishing skill.
As stated in the descriptive lobby plaque (provided by the Pennsylvania Academy of Art) the Tiffany Studio used 260 colors of glass to translate The Dream Garden into mosaic. But this wide array of colors was not sufficient for Tiffany who tasked his artisans to hand-paint some of the glass pieces to better replicate the details of Parrish's design.
Many of the glass pieces of the mosaic were also backed by gold leaf to enhance a shimmering effect.
Given this exacting effort to to insure fidelity with Parrish's original, the comment that the mosaic was not "painterly" does seem to be a bit unfair.
It is important to remember that the original design was Parrish's conception, his "dream." It is intriguing to speculate about the human drama behind The Dream Garden. But a more important point needs to be considered, as well.
During the long six-year campaign to mount a major work of art in the lobby of the Curtis Building, a series of seismic shifts, cultural and political, transformed the familiar world of Bok, Tiffany and Parrish.
In 1911, when Abbey died and Bok's quest began in earnest, the social structures of the Edwardian age, with its unquestioning belief in progress and profit, were still in place. Then, in 1913, the Armory Show hit the American art scene like a tornado. The next year, World War I shattered Europe. "Too proud to fight" in 1915 when 128 U.S. citizens drowned in the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by a German submarine, many Americans were ready and willing to join in the global bloodbath in 1917.
Anne Lloyd, Photo (2022)
Seen in retrospect, 1916 was the last year of America's Gilded Age. The Dream Garden, intended to embody precepts of truth and beauty, serves as a poignant memorial to a vanished America where "wars and rumors of wars" were almost always "Over There" or in the past.
Melancholy thoughts like this don't last long, when you stand before The Dream Garden. Meditate for a moment or two. Behold the reflection of the glimmering mosaic in the wishing pool, below. Savor the essence of this remarkable work of art, ingrained in thousands of favrile glass tiles, and then that spirit will enter into our hearts, too!
After we left the Curtis Building, Anne and I walked down Walnut Street past the 18th-style gardens cultivated for by the Pennsylvania Horticultural Society.
It was a familiar scene for me. Many years ago, I used to work as a volunteer tour guide at the Independence National Historic Park. I have walked past these gardens countless times
On this sunny day in September, however, the neatly-trimmed hedges and shrubs, sited with geometric precision, affected me much differently than they usually do.
Perhaps it was the weather or just my impression, but everywhere I looked I seemed to see a Dream Garden.
Maxfield Parrish (American, 1870-1966), designer. The Dream Garden, 1914-15. Constructed by Tiffany Studios, Cortona, New York; installed in the Curtis Center Building, Philadelphia, 1916. Favrile Glass Mosaic:15 x 49 feet (180 x 588 Inches.) Weight: four tons.
The Dream Garden is part of the Collection of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Partial Bequest of John W. Merriam; partial purchase with funds provided by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts; partial gift from Bryn Mawr College, The University of the Arts, and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. 2001-15.#2001.15
The photo of Maxfield Parrish is from the archives of the National Portrait Gallery, Washington D.C.; the photos of Edward W. Bok and Louis Comfort Tiffany are from the Library of Congress.