Most people associate Orlando, Florida, with its major tourist attractions, such as Walt Disney World and Universal Studios. However, the Orlando area is also home to some beautiful museums, including the Charles Hosmer Morse Museum of American Art, a hidden gem of Art Nouveau that is best-known for its substantial collection of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany, which has been called “the most personal, most comprehensive and the most interesting collection of Tiffany anywhere” by Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. While Louis Comfort Tiffany’s father, Charles Tiffany, founded the luxury jewelry company Tiffany & Co., which has become synonymous with sterling silver and diamond jewelry, Louis Comfort Tiffany himself found success, both nationally and internationally, with stained-glass lamps and windows. These colorful and ornate pieces are a definite highlight of the Charles H. Morse Museum, alongside pieces designed by other renowned artists of the time such as Frank Lloyd Wright, John La Farge, Alphonse Mucha, René Lalique, and Émile Gallé.
Located in Winter Park, Florida, just north of downtown Orlando, the museum was named in honor of Charles Hosmer Morse, a Chicago industrialist who retired in Winter Park and a distant relative of Samuel Morse (the inventor of the Morse code). It was founded in 1942 by Charles H. Morse’s grand-daughter, Jeannette Genius McKean, and her husband, Hugh McKean. Jeannette and Hugh McKean were both artists and Hugh McKean had spent time in his youth, while he was still training as an art student, with Louis Comfort Tiffany at his estate of Laurelton Hall in New York. With no children, the McKeans devoted their time and wealth to philanthropic efforts centered around art and education.
How did the McKeans come to acquire this wide range of Tiffany pieces? Many pieces and works of art in the Tiffany collection came directly from Laurelton Hall, located in Long Island, New York, which was the home of Louis Comfort Tiffany. After Tiffany’s death in the 1930s, the property fell into disrepair and in 1957, it was ravaged by a fire. At that time, Tiffany’s art, representative of the extravagant and ornate Art Nouveau style, had fallen out of favor, replaced by Modern Art. When Jeannette and Hugh McKean learned about the devastating fire, they traveled to Long Island and purchased everything, hoping to salvage as much as they could. The McKeans spent the next decades growing their collection and re-introducing the forgotten art of Louis Comfort Tiffany to the general public, with Hugh McKean even publishing The "Lost" Treasures of Louis Comfort Tiffany in 1980.
The museum’s highlights include Louis Comfort Tiffany’s depiction of the four seasons on stained-glass windows, which were presented at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
The Charles H. Morse Museum counts a number of stained-glass windows by Tiffany which can be admired up close.
Other beautiful pieces include the various stained-glass lamps by Louis Comfort Tiffany’s studios, with designs often inspired by nature, such as flora (bamboo, tulips, lilies, peonies, wisteria) and fauna (dragonflies, spiderwebs, turtles).
From left to right, back row: floor standard (bamboo design); reading lamp (tulip design); library lamp (peony design); library lamp (black-eyed Susan design).
From left to right, front row: library lamp (turtleback design); desk lamp (wisteria design); reading lamp (spiderweb design); library lamp (dragonfly design).
For the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, Louis Comfort Tiffany designed a Byzantine-Romanesque chapel interior which can be viewed in its entirety at the Charles H. Morse Museum. The chapel interior includes stained-glass windows, columns encrusted with glass mosaics, a 10-by-8-foot electrified chandelier in the shape of a cross, and a baptismal font. An automated lighting system cycles through different settings, allowing visitors to view the chapel interior under both dimmed and bright lights, which highlights different parts of the glass and mosaics.
The Morse collection includes a selection of a dozen oil on canvas portraits by American artists from the 18th to 20th century. Most notably, the painting Portrait of a man, c.1875, by Gilbert Stuart, who is best known for that portrait of George Washington (the one on the dollar bill), a portrait by the famed John Singer Sargent and one by Samuel Morse, a distant relative of Charles H. Morse who had a career as a portrait painter even though he is better known for his invention of the Morse code.
What is great about the Charles H. Morse Museum is that there is a wide variety of pieces that can appeal to almost anyone’s interest. Other than the aforementioned works, there are watercolor studies by Alice Carmen Gouvy and Lillian A. Palmié, who worked for Tiffany; jewelry and favrile metalwork, potteries, vases, as well as furniture and architectural ornaments from Laurelton Hall.
With the price of admission being $6 for adults, $1 for students, and free for children under 12, the Charles H. Morse Museum is not only a must-see but an affordable outing that will dazzle you.
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Emma Duval is passionate about women’s history and helping highlight the stories of lesser-known women whose accomplishments deserve to be better known, such as Jeannette McKean. On Twitter and Instagram, @MillennialEmma, she focuses on the stories of women who defied societal expectations such as marriage or motherhood, by remaining single or childless.