Published: February 19, 2002
NEW YORK CITY – The china-decorating fervor that swept the United States from the late 1870s to the early Twentieth Century – giving rise to this country’s art and studio pottery tradition and providing women artists and artisans with a means of support – is the focus of “,” an exhibition on view in the Metropolitan’s Henry R. Luce Center for the Study of Americana Art through April 14.
The exhibition, a complement to the concurrent “Candace Wheeler: The Art and Enterprise of American Design, 1875-1900,” features some 40 works, dating from approximately 1853 to the 1920s, drawn exclusively from the Metropolitan’s comprehensive collections.
The Eugénie Prendergast Exhibitions of American Art are made possible by a grant from Jan and Warren Adelson.
Among the highlights of the exhibition are superb works by M. Louise McLaughlin, Maria Longworth Nichols (founder, in 1880, of the Rookwood Pottery), Adelaide Alsop Robineau and Celia Thaxter. The Englishmen Edward Lycett and John Bennett, important figures in the early years of the china decorating movement in America, are also represented.
Many factors contributed to a burgeoning interest in china decorating in the late 1800s. Prosperous post-Civil War Americans enjoyed unprecedented amounts of leisure time for artistic and cultural pursuits. Exhibitions such as the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia introduced the country to a wide range of ceramics as well as to the distant cultures of the Near and Far East, and to the English Reform and Aesthetic movements that sought to infuse art into all aspects of life.
Some of the earliest works in the exhibition were created in the ateliers of retailers supplying special-order goods to private individuals as well as to such commercial establishments as hotels and saloons.
On view is a group of four pitchers featuring commissioned designs painted by anonymous decorators, some with elaborate names or initials adorned with naturalistic flowers. One pitcher displays a portrait of a hotel. Another, probably exhibited at the New York Crystal Palace exhibition of 1853 by the retailer Haughwout & Daily, bears a rendering of the great seal of the United States, suggesting a possible china pattern for a presidential service. Mrs Abraham Lincoln later ordered a service in a similar pattern; much of it remains at the White House today.
The Englishmen Edward Lycett (1833-1910) and John Bennett (1840-1907) had both trained in the Staffordshire pottery tradition and then developed highly skilled and individualistic styles. Both artists encouraged china decorating by teaching classes in their studios and by firing amateurs’ work in their kilns.
The Society of Decorative Art in New York City – founded by Candace Wheeler in 1877 – enlisted Bennett in 1878 to teach classes in underglaze china painting. In the late 1870s and early 1880s, Lycett conducted classes in his New York shop and in St Louis and Cincinnati, Ohio.
At the same time, Celia Thaxter, an essayist, poet, watercolorist and china painter from New Hampshire, was painting designs based on Japanese art and, later, classical sources. Thaxter’s 1888 vase depicting olive branches and a Greek inscription from Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus is among the highlights of the exhibition.
With the exception of Bennett, Lucett, Thaxter and their circles, the amateur china painting movement made its first appearance in Cincinnati. There, German immigrant and ceramic chemist Karl Langenbeck taught Maria Longworth Nichols how to paint on china.
Nichols, along with M. Louise McLaughlin, who had studied at the Cincinnati School of Design, began by decorating imported porcelain “blanks.” Both women evolved into extraordinarily successful artists who designed, painted and decorated their own wares.
Serious rivals, they both received widespread critical acclaim and produced pottery considered among the foremost examples of art pottery in the United States. McLaughlin, founder of the Cincinnati Pottery Club in 1879, produced and decorated two large vases for the club’s first annual exhibition in May 1880, one of which is on view in “.”
At the time, two monumental works, one of which McLaughlin called the “Ali Baba Vase,” were the two largest pieces of art pottery ever produced in the country. In direct response, Maria Longworth Nichols produced her counterpart, the “Aladdin Vase,” which demonstrated her fascination with Japanese art through the extravagant use of marine creatures – ray, carp, eels and turtles in high relief captured within a gilt net – drawn from Japanese print sources.
Nichols would go on to found, in 1880, one of the most successful and long-lived of the art potteries, Rookwood, which remained in existence for nearly a century. Before closing its doors in 1967, Rookwood had provided a venue for hundreds of talented female artists to professionally decorate ceramic wares.
Works by Nichols and McLaughlin are on view in the exhibition, including three examples of McLaughlin’s porcelain, which she called “Losanti.”
Other potteries represented in “Women China Decorators” include the Newcomb Pottery, founded at the women’s school at Tulane University, Newcomb College, in New Orleans, and the Saturday Evening Girls, whose purpose was to educate and train young girls who had recently immigrated and were then situated in Boston’s North End.
One of the most prominent figures in American art ceramics, Adelaide Alsop Robineau, is best known for her extraordinary work in porcelain, which she endeavored to fabricate and decorate in her Syracuse studio. Many examples of Robineau’s work are on view in the exhibition, including her Peruvian Serpent Bowl, which features intricately carved and compressed crouching Mayan figures and a deep, rich, matte brown glaze. Robineau’s experimentation with glazes is evident in the works on view in the exhibition, which include a tiny, 3 -inch high covered jar with a jewel-like crystalline finish, and the rich celadon, turquoise and gun metal grays seen on various bottle-shaped vases.
In addition to decorated ceramics, the exhibition includes related publications of the period that offered advice to aspiring amateurs while providing step-by-step decorating instruction and aesthetic guidance.
Also on view are trade catalogs advertising a wide array of materials necessary for decorating china, including porcelain blanks, enamels and brushes, and the new portable coal- or gas-fired kilns that enabled the amateur china decorator to fire her work at home.
The curator of “” is Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang curator of American decorative arts. Assistance is provided by Barbara Veith, research assistant, department of American decorative arts. Exhibition design is by Michael Langley, with graphic design by Jill Hammarberg and lighting by Zack Zanolli, all of the museum’s design department.
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