Of all of Tiffany's aesthetic movement decorations, the trompe l'oeil "drip" style is one of the rarest. Boldly naturalistic drips flow organically and resemble the material they represent.
While not initially obvious, this naturalistic style was derived from Japanese design. In his diary, Charles T. Grosjean discusses how he developed this motif.
When Edward C. Moore returned from the 1878 Paris Exposition on August 17th, he brought with him purchases of Japanese goods from the fair. These pieces were meant to be models and inspire designs at Tiffany & Co.
Among these pieces, Grosjean notes "a bronze with 'drip' ornament" and makes a quick and small sketch of a vase with drips from the rim. It is interesting to note that in the Edward C. Moore gift to the Metropolitan Museum of art is included a Japanese bronze vase with drips coming from the rim. These watery drips work well with the wave and sea motifs of the vase.
Shortly after seeing the vase, Grosjean "goes to the store [Tiffany & Co.'s retail location on Union Square]" and notices Venetian glass for sale with drip decoration. The idea of drip decoration was to stay in his mind.
On February 26, 1879, Grosjean notes in his diary:
Made design of drip on Tea Caddy. It looked as if the caddy had been filled with batter and by squeezing down the cover it had run over and trickled down the body leaving a little gold diaper border peeping out here & there. I propose for cheap work to chase the drip & cup the lower part of body into the drip or upper part of the body. [Spelling, punctuation and capitalization are Grosjean's.]
This paragraph is pure Grosjean, Tiffany & Co.'s master silversmith. Under Edward C. Moore's tutelage, Grosjean has developed a keen eye for design, but as head silversmith, he also focuses on both the method and efficiency of fabrication.
On May 7th, Grosjean is clearly happy with his creation: "Copper Tea caddy with silver drip with gold border peeking out underneath it looked well."
However, this initial piece of "drip" decoration is only a prelude to the masterpieces which would follow, including our "drip" vase. Unfortunately, Grosjean's extant diaries end shortly after the completion of the tea caddy and before the creation of our vase.
The size of the trompe l'oeil "drip" decoration on our vase increased dramatically, boldly flowing down the sides in (mostly) wide, gloppy drips. Possibly this was also meant to resemble "batter," although our first impression was of lava on a volcano. Another idea is melted wax from a candle, although candlelight was somewhat out of fashion at this time.
Not only have the scale and complexity of the "drips" increased significantly, but instead of one row of "diaperwork," there are now three. The first row is gold diaperwork with a center of silver, the second row is inlaid gold lozenges, and the third row is silver with gold lozenges in the center. In his diaries, Grosjean discusses methods of etching rather than carving copper, then filling the voids with gold and silver. (This silver diaperwork is "solder #1", resulting in the slightly grayish pewter-like hue of the metal.)
Not satisfied with this already impressive achievement, Grosjean pushes the vase further with the inclusion of pure silver inlaid into the copper body in a slpatter design.
Technically, inlaying pure silver into the copper in a detailed pattern such as this is a difficult process likely involving masking areas, removing copper with an acid bath, then electro-depositing the silver in the voids. At this time, Tiffany & Co. was experimenting with this electronic process, trying different battery powers, different solutions, and various sized electronic nodes at different times.
In this vase, we can see Charles Grosjean's design and design theories, influenced by Edward C. Moore and possibly aided by Charles Osborne (who started to work for Tiffany & Co. on January 1, 1879). We can also see his determination to run a silver shop that is constantly experimenting and finding solutions to aesthetic and scientific barriers.
Charles T. Grosjean was one of the most accomplished, imaginative and innovative American silversmiths who ever lived. The story of this vase and its trompe l'oeil design helps us see why.
This description has been updated with the kind assistance of Associate Curator Medill Higgins Harvey and the Department of Object Conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Charles T. Grosjean, Diaries and Technical Manuals, Gorham Mfg. Company Archives, John Hay Library, Brown University.