NEW YORK CITY — Following a dream, aspiring painter Robert Ellison Jr left his home state of Texas in 1962, bound for New York City and destined to make his mark on the world as an artist. Despite possessing an appreciative eye for the arts, Ellison’s paintings found favor with few. Virtually every gallery that Ellison approached refused to show his work. It was then that Ellison discovered what would become a driving force in his life — ceramics.
Ellison began exploring antiques shops, galleries and auction halls when he was not painting. One afternoon, he found himself “in a shop on West Bleecker Street and was mesmerized by this blue and white plate with rabbits decorated all around the border,” recounted Ellison. “As I recall, my hand just reached for it, took it without my permission.” And so began a journey that manifested within the young bohemian artist, laying the groundwork for what would become one of the foremost collections of American, European and English art pottery in existence today.
Ellison’s entire collection of American pottery was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009 and became the subject of a landmark exhibition that remains on display in the mezzanine of the new American Wing. Similarly, 76 pieces of Ellison’s most important examples of European pottery have recently been acquired by the Met, 54 through an outright donation.
Celebrating the recent acquisition of Ellison’s European art pottery collection, the Met has launched a second major retrospective, “Making Pottery Art: The Robert A. Ellison Jr Collection of French Ceramics.” Stylishly displayed in the main floor’s Wrightsman Exhibition Gallery, the exhibition is on view through August 18. The 40 examples represent iconic examples of French pottery and porcelain, and equally important is the Met’s ability to show the works in yet another stellar presentation, said Ellison. “They are displayed in this most ethereal-type of installation — almost floating in the glass cases,” he said.
Displayed among comparative examples drawn from the museum’s holdings of Asian art, European sculpture and decorative arts, Greek and Roman art, and European paintings, the accompanying works illustrate the potter’s sources of inspiration.
This most recent donation also included a major collection of English and European ceramics, which have yet to go on view. This donation comes on the heels of his 2009 bequest of nearly 300 pieces of iconic pieces of American art pottery ranging from exemplary pieces by George Ohr to the Saturday Evening Girls.
“What makes Robert Ellison’s collection of European art pottery so special is that it offers a complete story of the art pottery movement in Europe, particularly France, in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century,” stated curator Elizabeth Sullivan, the Met’s research associate in European sculpture and decorative arts. “All the major artist-potters of the period are represented, including Ernest Chaplet, Auguste Delaherche and Jean Carriès — what makes Bob’s collection particularly unique is that he sought out truly exceptional examples of these artists’ work — those of the highest quality, technically and artistically, and in monumental sizes.
“Bob is a truly remarkable collector,” she added, “passionate and informed, he sought out really beautiful pieces with wonderful surfaces and glazes.”
In the early days of collecting, Ellison was unsure of his footing. There was not much written about art pottery in the 1960s and the collector took it upon himself to learn about the potters and their potteries. “One dealer kept saying, ‘You should consider one of these vases by the owner of the Dedham Pottery,’” stated Ellison, “which turned out to be those things that were later called volcanic glazed pots with thick, heavy, flowing, runny glazes that looked like lava. So finally I did,” he said. “And I just loved it — and that was my key into the world of art pottery.”
Humorously, the collector clearly remembers his first piece of Grueby. “It was $25, instead of the $10 that I was used to spending. I asked the dealer, ‘How come it was so much?’ The response was that it ‘was handmade’ — which was almost true,” he said with a chuckle.
Ellison had been collecting for ten years when most of the George Ohr stuff came on the market. “And, of course, that was a revelation to me. It was abstract like the painting I was doing at the time. I really loved Ohr because of the forms and the color of many of his glazes were wonderful. I was really taken by his work — in a way that I felt deeply about it.”
Ellison gave up painting when he was asked to write an essay for the reference book The Mad Potter of Biloxi, devoting all of his time to collecting and research.
The collector traveled to Paris in the mid-1970s and this launched a new chapter in his collections. “I started looking around at European pottery and found it to be equally engaging. So I pursued that and I learned about English pottery and a few European things.” Pieces by the Martin Brothers, Christopher Dresser and Ruskin were also among the most recent donation, including bird jars, creatures and a variety of vases. “I always collected Christopher Dresser because he seemed so strange and esoteric — and Ruskin was another that I particularly liked; he splattered colors in the glaze and that also reminded me of the paintings I made,” Ellison said.
Determined that pottery vessels should be regarded as true works of art, avant-garde ceramicists in France during the last decades of the Nineteenth Century transformed their craft into an intellectual and emotional endeavor.
The French ceramics on view from the Ellison collection include vases made by potters in the years around 1900. Ellison sought out premier examples that pushed the boundaries of the medium and were technically experimental and aesthetically ambitious.
“Right away, I had a nice rapport with French work,” said the collector. “It was well crafted, well glazed and some of the makers created larger pieces that were very impressive; they have a commanding presence. I was impressed with the scale of these things and how they speak to you and the public.”
Pioneers of this revival included Jean Carriès, Ernest Chaplet and Auguste Delaherche, potters who embraced artisanal traditions while pursuing lost techniques through exhaustive experimentation. Adopting the philosophy of the Arts and Crafts movement, these potters reacted to what they negatively viewed as excessive and improper use of ornament. Instead they celebrated the simplicity of their medium. Many found inspiration in Asian ceramics, particularly Japanese stoneware, as well as in the forms, glazes and techniques of Chinese potteries.
A star of the show is the monumental “Vase des Binelles” by Hector Guimard. While Ellison claims to have no favorites, he does concede that the 52-inch-high porcelain vase by Guimard is the piece he is asked about the most. Guimard was the architect who designed the metalwork around the subway system in Paris, and the collector commented that this vase was “inspired by one of the houses that he built for himself. There are five known examples; this was the last one that remained in private hands, and now it is at the Met,” said Ellison
Another favorite is an extremely rare ceramic vessel by Paul Gauguin, “Vessel with Women and Goats,” the first by the artist to enter the Met’s collection. “It is only about 8 inches tall, but it has some figures and relief on the side, very obviously hand built.” Gauguin made the primitive stoneware vase circa 1886–87 and formed it with open handles with intersecting rings.
Carries’s “Flask with Face” is another showstopper. The glazed stoneware vase, circa 1890, features roughly formed loop handles that extend from the vessels shoulder to the neck, which contrasts sharply with the intricately carved and molded face central decoration.
“The impact that Bob’s collection has on the Met’s collection is that we now have one of the top collections of French art pottery in the world — along with the Musée des arts décoratifs, Musée d’orsay and the Petit Palais,” states Sullivan. “The Met acquired Bob’s European collection of 76 works in June 2013, a joint acquisition by the departments of European sculpture and decorative arts and Modern and contemporary art. When you consider this with Bob’s gift to the American Wing — it is truly amazing. It means the Met now has close to 400 works from the Ellison collection, enabling us to give a complete picture of the art pottery movement in Europe and America.”
“The arrival of these works from the Robert A. Ellison Jr Collection of European Art Pottery represents another ceramics milestone in the Metropolitan Museum’s history,” added Sullivan.
As for Ellison’s paintings, as with most things in life, they have come full circle. “Most of them are in mini-storage,” commented Ellison, “but every now and then I give one to David Rago to sell at his auction and they have been doing quite well.”
The Metropolitan Museum of Art is at 1000 Fifth Avenue. For information, 212-650-2010 or www.metmuseum.org.