Published: December 2, 2003
– Building on a foundation of graceful and well-crafted ceramic shapes, the great strengths of the Rookwood Pottery based in Cincinnati, Ohio, were the artistic skills of its superb roster of decorators and the firm’s technical innovations in the field of colored glazes. Collectors who know Rookwood only from the shining floral-decorated Iris glaze vases made prior to World War I are viewing only a fraction of the artistic production created at the pottery during its long history.
“Elegant Innovations: American Rookwood Pottery, 1880-1960,” a new exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art through February 8, presents 140 works from an extraordinary collection formed by Gerald and Virginia Gordon and later presented to the institution. The couple was fortunate enough to discover Rookwood before collector interest and auction prices for art pottery began spiraling higher during the 1980s. Their first major piece, an 1885 Mahogany glaze vase featuring a Japanese crane design by important decorator Albert Robert Valentien, was purchased at auction in 1972 for less than $500.
When they conceived the idea of eventually donating their pottery to a museum, they decided to assemble a comprehensive collection that represented the best of Rookwood from every era. The examples on display present a broad range of artistic styles and techniques dating from the firm’s foundation in 1880 and extending into the second half of the Twentieth Century.
To accompany the exhibition, Rookwood scholar Nancy E. Owen has written the catalog, Rookwood Pottery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Gerald and Virginian Gordon Collection, with an introductory essay by the couple on collecting and a chapter by curator of American decorative arts Jack Lindsey on the importance of Rookwood in the museum’s history.
It was, in fact, in Philadelphia at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876 that Rookwood Pottery founder Maria Longworth Nichols first conceived the idea of establishing her own pottery. The daughter of a wealthy Cincinnati family, Nichols had tried her own hand at decorating china and experimenting with glazes. Like many visitors, she was fascinated by the sophisticated European pottery and more exotic ceramics of Japan and China on view in the pavilions.
Nichols was not the only observer to recognize America’s weakness in the field of ceramics. The Bulletin of the Pennsylvania Museum (the precursor of the Philadelphia Museum of Art) noted harshly that “the contrast of the American displays of the products was sadly to their disadvantage side by side with the French, the English, and in fact all the civilized people.”
Returning home to Cincinnati, Maria Nichols persuaded her father to fund her new pottery, which she named Rookwood, after the Longworth family’s country estate. From the beginning, she emphasized that her pottery’s production would be artistic, rather than commercial, and began a tradition of engaging artists who were accomplished easel painters and sculptors in their own right.
In September 1881, she hired the 19-year-old Valentien, who shared her admiration for the Japanese aesthetic and went on to become one of the firm’s most-admired decorators. Other early artists of importance were Matthew Andrew Daly and Laura Ann Fry, who created the subtly shaded handled vase with chrysanthemum spray in the Gordon collection.
Nichols’s artists had access to the inspirational designs in the Manga, a multivolume set of drawings by Katsushika Hokusai, but she had long hoped to hire a Japanese artist for the staff. In 1887, Kataro Shirayamadani came to Cincinnati from his job in Boston and – with the exception of a long sojourn in Japan from 1911 to 1921 – continued creating superb works for Rookwood until his death in 1948. The Gordon collection contains Shirayamadani examples from every period, including a moody landscape vase in Standard glaze from 1897 and a 1927 masterpiece in Ivory/Ivory Jewel Porcelain glaze carved with poppies and wheat.
Other artists trained at Rookwood and then went on to pursue a career elsewhere. Artus Van Briggle, who is represented in the exhibition by an interesting Standard glaze low bowl from 1888, was sent to Paris for two years of study and then returned to Ohio where he experimented with matte glazes for the firm’s products. Stricken with tuberculosis, Van Briggle later founded his own pottery in Colorado Springs, Colo., in 1901.
Furthermore, Nichols provided for the administrative success of the pottery when she hired William Watts Taylor as general business manager in 1883. Owens explains, “He was a marketing genius and very attuned to trends in the fine arts and the decorative arts. But you also have to credit the extremely creative and innovative artists, and the pottery had some really amazing chemists who developed the glazes, figured out new things to do and new ways to do them.”
Early in its history, the Rookwood Pottery established a mutually beneficial relationship with Edwin AtLee Barber, a pioneering ceramics scholar who became curator and later director at the Pennsylvania Museum and School of Industrial Arts. Barber had first refusal on the artist-signed ceramics that Rookwood was exhibiting at the many international expositions popular in the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century. The present museum still owns a Black Iris glaze vase decorated with shimmering roses by Shirayamadani, which was purchased after its exhibition at the 1899 Exposition Universelle in Paris.
Both Maria Longworth Nichols and William Watts Taylor realized the importance of Barber’s recognition. In his influential 1893 book Pottery and Porcelain of the United States, Barber said: “It is safe to assert that no ceramic establishment that has existed in the United States has come [nearer to] fulfilling the requirements of a distinctively American institution than the Rookwood Pottery of Cincinnati, Ohio…. It was the conception of a talented woman, who devoted her rare abilities and her abundant means to the realization of an idea.”
Many of the early Rookwood decorators painted on a dark background glaze described as Standard – although by no means ordinary or mediocre – that became the “brand identity” of the pottery. Other early finishes include Limoges, Mahogany and a Dull glaze line. Nichols had established the pottery on a firm foundation, and after her remarriage in 1886, she handed over control of Rookwood to Taylor, who remained committed to the success of the enterprise.
While some decorators were playing around with Asian motifs, others were creating very painterly portraits based on Old Master works or on ethnographic photographs of early Americans. Indian portraits by Grace Young from 1900 and 1902 are part of the exhibition, and the Gordons’ introduction notes that these were among the first works to bring strong prices from collectors at the beginning of the 1980s.
With the strength of its decorating staff, Rookwood strived to continually develop new glazes to complement the artists’ work. In the 1890s, the influence of Impressionism caused the pottery to create a series of lighter pastel glazes named Sea Green, Iris and Aerial Blue. The latter was never extensively marketed to the public but is represented by two vases painted with genre scenes by Sarah Alice Toohey and Mary Louella Perkins. The warm gray Iris glaze remains one of the firm’s greatest accomplishments, and examples – almost always painted with naturalistic floral composition – remain as popular with collectors today as they were with consumers at the turn of the century.
Although flowers were hot sellers, many company artists wanted to try their hand on sculptural creations in the Art Nouveau style sweeping Europe or carved and incised pieces with Arts and Crafts or Art Deco aesthetics. All of these required matte glazes rather than the glasslike finish of Iris. William Ernst Hentschel’s 1914 Stoneware vase with its mottled Ombroso glaze is a perfect example of the firm’s early Twentieth Century production.
Owen says, “Hentschel is the best-known artist from the later period, and the Gordon collection includes some wonderful examples of his work. Sara Sax and Sarah Toohey continued to work. They had been there a long time, but they continued to make very high quality objects. The firm made fewer one-of-a-kind, artist-signed pieces, but they were still produced and that’s not well-known.”
Another groundbreaking innovation was the introduction of a porcelain body at Rookwood in 1915, on the pottery’s 35th anniversary. Porcelain was subject to less damage during firing and could be used for reproducing historical designs and finishes, such as the blood-red Chinese-style glaze Sang-de-boeuf. Hentschel created a Persian vase in 1920 with a deep turquoise background, and around 1930 experimented with a stencil technique called pochoir for a series of Art Deco images, that brought the pottery well into the modern era.
The Philadelphia Museum of Art is located on Benjamin Franklin Parkway at 26th Street. Information on hours and events can be found at 215-763-8100 or . The exhibition catalog, Rookwood Pottery at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: The Gerald and Virginian Gordon Collection, can be ordered from the museum store at 800-329-4856.
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