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Mary E. Tillinghast and Urania, The Muse of Astronomy

159 Riverview Drive, Observatory Hill, 1900; Thorsten E Billquist, architect.

By Albert Tannler

In 1882, Western University of Pennsylvania (which became the University of Pittsburgh in 1904) moved to Allegheny City. In 1894 land was purchased at the summit of Riverview Park for a new observatory.[1] The cornerstone of the Observatory was laid on October 20, 1900 and construction began.

La Farge created his Fortune window 1900-1902; it was installed in the Frick Building for the building opening on March 15, 1902.

The Observatory is a scientific acropolis—a tan brick and white terra cotta hill-top temple whose Classical forms and decoration symbolize the unity of art and science. The L-shaped building consists of a library, lecture hall, classrooms, laboratories, offices, and three hemispherical domed telescope enclosures. Two were reserved for research; one for use by schools and the general public. The core of the building is a small rotunda, housing an opalescent glass window depicting the Greek muse of astronomy, Urania.

Director Frank L. O. Wadsworth, of the observatory of the Western University of Pennsylvania, announced last evening the arrival of a stained glass window from New York as the gift of the Misses Smith, who have devoted a generous sum to the establishment of the observatory. Prof. Wadsworth says the window is to adorn the new structure of the observatory. It is pronounced one of the most artistic works of Miss Mary E. Tillinghast.

The window, which is 9×3 feet, shows Urania, almost lifelike, standing in an open porch. Her garb is of the ancient Grecian fashion; in one hand she holds a planet, the other being raised to the heavens. Beside her resting against a pedestal is a pair of compasses; on the pedestal is the lamp of knowledge, whose flames lighten the figure. She stands between two columns. Around one is a wreath of laurel.

Far behind her, in the moonlight, are the ruins of the Acropolis. Shining in the sky and placed relatively with astronomical precision are the moon, the evening star, planets of Pleiades. Under the figure is a delicately blended spectrum, typifying the work of the observatory.

This thorough description of the window in the Observatory appeared in the Pittsburgh Post on July 3, 1903.[2] The donors were a pair of well-to-do philanthropic siblings, Jennie Smith (1832-1911) and her younger sister, Matilda (1837-1909). When the University moved to Allegheny City, the Smith sisters became enthusiastic supporters. John Brashear remembered them as:

two good women that lived on the avenue just beyond the Observatory, who from the very beginning of the work of the new institution, contributed liberally, not only of their means, but gave their personal interest to many of the details of architecture, ornamentation, and other things. A beautiful window on the northern side of the building, the Riefler precision clock, the beautiful marble finish of the main building, and many other such matters were due to their interest and generosity.[3]

The artist was Mary Elizabeth Tillinghast (1845-1912) of New York City.[4]   Like many American artists of the period, she spent several years in Europe, visiting Italy and studying painting in Paris. One of her teachers, Emile-Auguste Carolus-Duran, also taught the most famous American painter of the era, John Singer Sargent.

In 1878 Tillinghast began a seven-year affiliation with New York artist John La Farge (1835-1910)—painter, muralist, critic, and inventor of a new process for making decorative glass windows. Tillinghast became an expert textile designer, served as manager of the La Farge Decorative Art Company, and learned the art of designing and making windows from La Farge.

In 1878 Mary Tillinghast began a seven-year affiliation with New York artist John La Farge (1835-1910)—painter, muralist, critic, and inventor of a new process for making decorative glass windows. Tillinghast became an expert textile designer, served as manager of the La Farge Decorative Art Company, and learned the art of designing and making windows from La Farge. Urania was installed in the Observatory on July 3, 1903.

La Farge patented his “opalescent” window glass in 1880: “The object of my invention is to obtain opalescent and iridescent effects in glass windows . . . softening the light, and, by reason of its unevenness of structure and formation [prevent] the direct passage of rays of light.”[5] This new glass was known at the time as “American Glass.” Historian Barbara Weinberg notes that La Farge developed it in order to “reconcile the color and brilliance of early glass with contemporary desires for naturalistic form . . . , to permit depiction of rounded forms and convincing space.”[6]   American Renaissance painters admired the three-dimensional realism introduced by Raphael and 15th-century Renaissance painters, and sought to emulate it—in paintings and in glass windows.

Tillinghast’s first major window, Jacob’s Dream, was installed in 1887 in Grace Episcopal Church, New York City.   She worked from her Greenwich Village studio, primarily as a window designer, but she also designed furniture and, in one case, was architect, decorator, and glass artist for a private chapel. Her glass was exhibited and won gold medals at several World’s Fairs. In addition to church windows, she designed windows for residences, and for institutions, most notably Urania in Pittsburgh and The Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1908) in the New York Historical Society.

Tillinghast and La Farge each designed a window in Downtown Pittsburgh.[7] La Farge’s Fortune in the Frick Building, designed by American Renaissance architect and planner D. H. Burnham of Chicago, was installed in 1902; Tillinghast’s Urania was installed in 1903. Each window portrays female figures framed by Classical columns—art echoing the architectural character of the building.

[1] The history of the Allegheny Observatory is taken from John A. Brashear, John A. Brashear: The Autobiography of A Man who Loved the Stars, Ed. by W. Lucien Scaife (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1924).

[2] “Window for Western Observatory,” Pittsburgh Post, 3 July 1903, 1. See also “Artistic window presented to Allegheny Observatory by the Misses Smith of Allegheny—Put in place within the week,” The Bulletin 47:10 (June 27, 1903), 1, 14.

[3] Brashear, Autobiography, 141-142. See also Ruth McCartin, “The Smith Sisters of Old Allegheny,” The Allegheny City Society Reporter Dispatch 1:3 (1996): 6-7, 9-10; and “Miss Matilda Smith, Philanthropist, Dies,” Pittsburgh Gazette, 1 November 1909.

[4] Gilson Willets, “Mary E. Tillinghast,” The Art Interchange 31:6 (December 1893),146-149; “Woman Stained Glass Artist: Mary Tillinghast’s Work in Pittsburgh and Other Cities.” Pittsburgh Post, 15 July 1906; New York Times, 16 December 1912: 13; Betty MacDowell, American Woman Stained Glass Artists, 1870s to 1930s: Their World and Their Windows (Diss. Michigan State University, 1986), 254-256, 326; L. A. Richards, “An Unworthy Obscurity,” Stained Glass 89:1 (Spring 1994), 35-41, 51-52.

[5] H. Barbara Weinberg, “John La Farge and the Invention of American Opalescent Windows,” Stained Glass 67:3 (Autumn 1972), 6.

[6] H. Barbara Weinberg, “The Early Stained Glass Work of John La Farge (1835-1910),” Stained Glass 67:2 (Summer 1972), 10.

[7] La Farge also designed three windows for the Presbyterian Church, Sewickley: Victory of Easter, c. 1897; Contemplative Angel, c. 1899; and Prayer and Hope, c. 1908.

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