The Lure of the Peacock: Iridescence and Immortality
By Sarah D. Coffin, Curator of 17th and 18th Century Decorative Arts, Head: Product Design and Decorative Arts Department, Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum
Objects have many stories but this vase connects different cultures and different periods in more ways than most. When it appeared in Rococo: The Continuing Curve 1730-2008 at Cooper-Hewitt, the Peacock Vase represented with its organic, sinuous forms the re-emergence of a curvilinear aesthetic in the Art Nouveau era of the Rococo style created in the 18th century. Shah Jahan, the seventeenth century Mughul ruler in India, had a throne bed with peacock motifs in jewels that became an object of desire for other rulers. Peacocks as birds no doubt gain special status in many cultures from the vivid coloration of the male’s tail feathers. As they drop and re-grow new feathers annually they are associated with rebirth and renewal, and by extension, resurrection and immortality. Peacocks have the ability to eat poisonous snakes unharmed, connecting to a belief that the tail’s shimmering colors enable it to turn snake venom into solar iridescence. Perhaps it is this last idea that made Louis Comfort Tiffany, the Peacock Vase’s creator, think of combining this motif with his iridescent glass. Both the peacock and Tiffany connect to the ancient world: Tiffany in creating iridescent glass. Iridescence was strived for to imitate the appearance of recently excavated glass in Syria and other places during the time of Roman rule.
Ancient glass owed its iridescence to the mineral deposits and effects of the glass being buried for centuries. Tiffany was not the first to seek to re-create this effect. Glass excavated in Hungary prompted glass creators in the late-nineteenth-century Austro-Hungarian Empire, to find a formula slightly before Tiffany to re-create the surface of their dug-up glass as an example of a national style. Tiffany succeeded not only in creating his own formula for iridescence but in understanding that it could have appeal to an international market of the great world’s fairs, thereby creating demand for this technique. He also understood the importance of connecting the decoration to original forms related to each other in organic ways-such as the peacock that is suggested-rather than literally represented-by both the form and the decoration of this vase.