NEW ORLEANS, LA. — The distinctive and graceful glazed ceramics created by the Newcomb Pottery are among the most treasured and collected of all American decorative arts. They were produced by an innovative enterprise that was one of the most interesting and advanced social experiments of its day.
Founded in 1894 as part of the art department of H. Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans, Newcomb Pottery offered a unique opportunity for Southern women to design, exhibit, market and sell utilitarian works with aesthetic beauty. Drawing on the flora and fauna of the Gulf Coast and Deep South, students at Newcomb — an early all-female art school — developed a signature aesthetic inspired by the Art Nouveau and Arts and Crafts movements. Each piece is one of a kind; collectively, they constitute a unique Southern art form.
In addition to celebrating local imagery, the pottery grew in response to Louisiana’s post-Civil War economic woes. Women employed by the pottery could support themselves as decorative art designers; the success of the enterprise enabled them to establish themselves as independent artisans and instructors. Newcomb Pottery was thus conceived as part artist collective, part social experiment and part business enterprise under the auspices of an educational institution. It taught Southern women self-reliance through education and financial independence through sale of their wares. The pottery thrived into the 1940s.
“Women, Art and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise,” organized by Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University and Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, is on view at Newcomb Art Gallery through March 9 before beginning a national tour.
Curated by Sally Main, senior curator at Newcomb Art Gallery, the exhibition showcases about 180 objects — an appealing sampling of Newcomb Pottery, along with lesser-known examples of jewelry, textiles, metalwork and bookbinding. The show offers new insights into the Newcomb community — its philosophy, friendships, craftsmanship and the women who left an indelible mark on American art and industry.
In the exhibition, works from various periods reflect the role the enterprise played in promoting art for the advancement of women, as well as progress for New Orleans’ business and cultural communities, still struggling to recover from the devastating effects of the Civil War and waves of disease. Over the course of four decades, somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 pieces were produced by more than 100 women.
As Sally J. Kenney, director of Newcomb College Institute, points out, the display “invites us to consider not only the aesthetic value of the body of art the Newcomb women artists produced, but also how the networks formed by Newcomb’s arts craftsmen … altered the prospects of its student artists, and the cultural landscape of the Gulf South.”
Newcomb College’s founder, Josephine Louise Newcomb, a wealthy New Orleans widow, envisioned educating women in the Gulf South not at a freestanding educational institution, but as part of established, all-male Tulane University. It was America’s first coordinate women’s college. Newcomb also envisioned an institution that would help women advance on the pragmatic side of life. The college distinguished itself in science and physical education, but the innovation that brought national and international recognition was its art department’s emphasis on training students to support themselves by making handcrafted items, notably ceramics.
“The vision of linking the fine arts and the industrial arts and setting them within liberal arts education proved as winning as innovative,” observes Kenney.
Newcomb students, primarily from New Orleans, were all white, as required by the school’s founders. They defied the stereotype of dainty Southern belles, flourishing in such challenging processes as molding clay teacups, carving vases, embroidering table runners and hammering silver objects. Each piece of their most famous product, pottery, was individually designed, hand thrown by a master potter (always men) and carefully glazed by Newcomb students.
Newcomb pottery favored tones of soft blue and light green in depicting images of southern Louisiana, with bayou scenes, sunsets, lush vegetation, flowers and an occasional animal. On a deeper level, Newcomb pottery also stands out for its connection with the American Arts and Crafts Movement, which emphasized hands-on craftsmanship and a prominent role for women in the arts. Making and decorating artistic pottery was both a step toward realizing an expanding role for females in society and a vital launching pad into modernity.
Newcomb Pottery’s unique output drew praise from influential Northerners, ranging from abolitionist and feminist Julia Ward Howe to Arthur Wesley Dow, champion of the Arts and Crafts Movement, to premier decorative arts impresario Louis Comfort Tiffany.
Some of the finest works on display, created in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth Centuries, featured bold, highly appealing floral designs by women who knew their botany and appreciated Southern flora.
Among the standouts are an 1897 vase with tendrils of green vegetation in the bottom half setting off the top half of bright yellow daffodils and other vases and pots with underglaze painting with glossy glazes depicting wisteria, oak trees, irises, pomegranate, poppies, phlox, pecans, fountains, birds and waves — and a circa 1902 vase with a semiabstract “Rising Mississippi Design.”
An eye-catching, three-handled tyg or drinking cup, circa 1900, was designed by a Newcomb student influenced by study at Dow’s summer school in Ipswich, Mass. It features a blue and green pine grove landscape design that rather than being a painted outline was incised and textured, forming intriguing horizontals and verticals.
Two new crafts — embroidery and metalwork — were added to the program in 1902. Products of the fiber arts class adhered to the same standards and design concepts as pottery, featuring regional flora and fauna imagery. A variety of wall hangings and table runners document the skill with which the Newcomb women carried out embroidery projects, notably a “Wall Hanging With Pine Forest Design” in which running and outline stitches with threads of blue, green, orange, purple and yellow offer a “juxtaposition of colors similar to that of pointillist paintings by Georges Seurat,” Main observes. Three brightly colored birds stand out in another embroidered masterpiece, “Wall Hanging With Maiden and Macaw Design.” It is understandable why embroidery work became Newcomb’s second biggest seller, after pottery.
Early metalworkers used perforated brass sheet metal to make shades for Newcomb ceramic lamp bases, pierced brass for mailboxes and punched brass over wooden substructures for inkwells. Unlike working with hot-forged metalwork, sheet brass or copper required few tools, minimal skills, and could be practiced in numerous locations. Newcomb designers also created jewelry, like handwrought silver necklaces with moonstones, an impressive silver punch bowl with ladle, cups and tray and silver and gold bracelets.
According to Dallas Museum of Art’s decorative curator Kevin W. Tucker, “The success of Newcomb’s metalworking program is not best measured through its scale or commercial achievements, but rather in how an educational craft shaped the lives of generations of women through their transformation from mere consumers to enlightened and skilled creators.”
Around World War I, the Arts and Crafts Movement had run its course, a victim in part of shifting aesthetic tastes and also its own successes. Newcomb Pottery began featuring designs that were softer, more naturalistic and more romantic, in keeping with prevailing notions about the South. As Main observes, “Popular literature [around this time] painted the South as an imaginary land of sultry, moonlit nights under moss-draped spreading oaks,” and designs reflecting that image were “consistently requested by Newcomb’s sales agents.” A circa 1919 “Vase With Moon and Tree Landscape Design” seems the perfect response, but the “moon and moss” motif gradually lost favor.
After World War I, the number of artisans working at Newcomb began to shrink as a broader range of employment opportunities for women opened up, and “craft-making seemed quaint,” in Main’s words. In response, efforts were made to modernize Newcomb’s crafts with hints of abstraction in some decorations and linear designs supplanting naturalistic motifs previously favored.
In the 1930s, decline of the Newcomb enterprise accelerated. Key staff members moved on to other positions, fewer women were interested in learning pottery-making, resources were scarce and the Great Depression worsened matters. Ironically, during this period Newcomb students turned out some of their most beautiful, appealing ceramic works — vases, bowls, candlesticks, cachepots, pitchers, creamers, candlesticks, as well as metalworks like copper bookends and silver suitcase plates.
A central figure behind many of these masterworks was Sarah “Sadie” Irvine, a New Orleans native and Newcomb alumna, who served as an instructor/artist/designer for nearly a quarter century. She encouraged students to decide their own designs and styles. During her academic career, Irvine exhibited in international expositions and won prizes not only for pottery decorations, but watercolors and block prints.
In 1939, the overseers of the Newcomb enterprise mandated that the ceramics department stress instruction of undergraduate art students, not a commercial endeavor. Two years later, a limited commercial art program, called the Newcomb Guild, was organized, and while it followed the basic artistic and commercial tenets of the original Newcomb Pottery enterprise, it never achieved the successes of its predecessor. Simple, handmade, utilitarian objects adorned with glazes based on colors of the Gulf South were created, with evocative names like “Rainware” (a blue-gray vase suggesting a thunderstorm) and “Monksware” (blue-brown in tone, reminiscent of robes worn by Catholic religious orders in New Orleans), but they seemed things of the past and did not sell well.
“The purchasing public was so entrenched in Newcomb’s ‘hallmark’ blue and green decorations that the new work remained unrecognized and untouched,” says Main. Activities of the Newcomb Guild were terminated in 1948.
This comprehensive display of Newcomb pottery and other crafts created by the program make clear why this innovative enterprise earned a lasting place in American art history. “Newcomb Pottery represents an achievement not surpassed by any other group of women artists in the United States,” says Main.
She adds that “During the 45 years of the pottery’s existence, at a critical time in America’s history, it demonstrated that women had skills in the arts that could be developed through education, and that those who participated were able to earn a living and become self-reliant.”
The 340-page catalog, The Arts & Crafts of Newcomb Pottery, contains color images of all works in the exhibition and vintage photographs, plus informative essays by Main and other experts, a timeline, biographies of 60 decorators, object registration numbers and a bibliography. Published by Skira Rizzoli Publications, it sells for $70, hardcover and $45, softcover.
After closing in New Orleans, the exhibition travels to Georgia Museum of Art (June 7–August 31); Stark Museum of Art (September 20–January 4, 2015); Gardner Museum, Toronto (January 24–April 19, 2015) and Frist Center for the Visual Arts (July 30–October 23, 2016).
The Newcomb Art Center is in the Woldenberg Art Center, 6823 St Charles Avenue on the Tulane University Campus. For further information, www.newcombartgallery.tulane.edu or 504-865-5328.