The Italian Presence in American Art, 1860-1920

By Irma B. Jaffe | Go to book overview

6. Italian Inspiration in Maitland Armstrong's Stained Glass and Mosaics

ROBERT O. JONES

David Maitland Armstrong ( 1836-1918) was one of the most prominent artists in the movement that has come to be called the American Renaissance. He was one of the earliest, most highly respected designers and developers of American-style opalescent stained glass windows. From the early 1880s he worked with two friends of his, Louis C. Tiffany and John La Farge, until he established his own firm in 1887, Maitland Armstrong and Company in New York City (Plate 55).

Imbued with a "classic spirit" in the sense defined by muralist Kenyon Cox in his book The Classic Point of View, 1 Armstrong studied and drew inspiration from historic artistic traditions. He collected prints and copied famous paintings. In his autobiography, Day Before Yesterday, he reminisced that he provoked the anger of a college professor by neglecting his studies in favor of copying "Venus Rising From the Sea."2 It is evident that he was not bound by these traditions, for his work is rich with elements of personal invention.

The influence of Italian art was prominent from the beginning of his career as a painter through the rest of his life as a stained glass artist and decorator. These influences will be illustrated here by three well-known architectural and artistic landmarks in New York City: the Villard House ( 457 Madison Avenue), the Church of the Ascension ( Fifth Avenue and Tenth Street), and the Appellate Court Building ( 27 Madison Avenue). These works range from the early days of his monumental designs to the height of American stained glass popularity at the turn of the century.

In the fall of 1858, after graduating from Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut, Armstrong sailed to Italy. Arriving just before the new year, he spent the next three months visiting numerous cities, drawing detailed studies of the Italian landscape, ancient buildings, and monuments. 3 He continued north across the continent to Scotland to see his ancestral home, visiting museums and galleries as he went.

In 1869 Armstrong was appointed to the post of American Consul to the Papal State. Before going to Rome, he, his wife, and baby daughter stopped in Florence where another daughter, Helen, was born. 4 The following year when Victor Emmanuel made Rome the capital of Italy, Armstrong became Consul-General to Rome. His duties made it necessary for him to become acquainted with virtually all the Americans in Rome and here he formed lifelong friendships with artists Elihu Vedder, Frederick Crowninshield, Charles C. Coleman, George Yewell, William Gedney Bunce, George Inness, and George Healy. On his last evening in Rome, Armstrong met Augustus Saint- Gaudens.

Alone or with friends Armstrong went on many painting and drawing excursions, often to the Campagna south of Rome which he found fascinating for its varied and subtle color. In the towns he visited, he would seek out the antique dealers before examining the centuries-old buildings and churches. Many evenings he went with Crowninshield to so-called "Gigi's Academy" where for a monthly fee Gigi provided a model, good light and heat, and about one hundred artists would draw and provide mutual criticism. He painted in Coleman's and Vedder's studios and paid Vedder for some lessons. 5 With summers free because the State Department considered the Roman summer too hot for one's health, he had opportunities for extended stays in the Italian lakes region and Venice.

He was impressed with the presence of murals

-97-

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