Past Treasure of the Month – January 2007

American Art Pottery
A Newcomb vase; Rookwood bowl; and Van Briggle vase.Clockwise from top: Newcomb Pottery vase with floral decoration, ca. 1912 (donated by Mary Gardner); Rookwood Pottery bowl with band of ivy leaves, ca. 1913; Van Briggle Pottery vase with stylized flower and leaf pattern, ca. 1910.

The term “art pottery” refers to pottery that is produced primarily for decorative purposes as opposed to being made for utilitarian purposes. Art pottery became popular in the United States after the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. There, potters from Japan and Europe exhibited their hand-crafted, beautifully decorated ceramic wares. These pieces quickly caught the attention of American artisans. By the 1890s, various companies and pottery schools had been established throughout the United States.

One of the best-known manufacturers of American art pottery was the Cincinnati-based Rookwood Pottery. Rookwood Pottery was founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols, a wealthy socialite with a passion for the decorative arts. After viewing the pottery exhibit at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876, Mrs. Nichols felt inspired to begin her own experiments with ceramic painting, glazing, and firing. Four years later, Nichols opened her own pottery and named it “Rookwood.”

From its modest beginnings, Rookwood Pottery grew to become one of the most recognized producers of art pottery in the world. Always innovative in style and technique, artisans at the pottery company were constantly trying out new clays, glazes, and colors. Rookwood Pottery gained international acclaim when it won a gold medal at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889. That same year, the firm was awarded first prize at the Philadelphia Exhibition of American Art Industry. Rookwood designs evolved from ornate Victorian to more modern Art Nouveau and Art Deco. Subjects included flowers, animals, and even portraits of historical figures. Rookwood was also a major producer of decorative tiles, fountains, lamps, and sculptures. The Second World War led to a decline in the number and quality of artists employed by Rookwood, and the pottery closed during the 1960s.

Another successful pottery company was Van Briggle Pottery in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Established in 1899, Van Briggle Pottery is one of the oldest American art pottery companies still extant today. Artus Van Briggle and his wife, Anne, first began their careers as decorators at the Rookwood Pottery. Both artists demonstrated great talent and were sent by the firm to study in France. Under the instruction of the world-famous French sculptor Auguste Rodin, Artus Van Briggle learned to sculpt and mold clay. Upon returning to the United States, he abandoned pottery decoration for pottery shaping.

Artus Van Briggle had suffered from tuberculosis since childhood, and the Van Briggles eventually settled in Colorado where the climate was believed to improve this condition. Sadly, Artus Van Briggle died from his illness in 1904, just two years after the Van Briggle Pottery opened. Anne Van Briggle continued to run the pottery, and within a decade, the factory was awarded medals at the Paris Salon, the St. Louis Exposition, and the Boston Arts and Crafts exhibition. In 1913, Van Briggle Pottery went bankrupt. The company was sold and reopened, and the factory has continued to produce American art pottery ever since. Van Briggle pottery is characterized by its single-color, matte glazes and Art Nouveau-inspired designs. Today examples of Van Briggle Pottery can be found in museum collections throughout the country.

A third manufacturer of American art pottery was Newcomb College in New Orleans, Louisiana. An adjunct of Tulane University, Sophie Newcomb Memorial College was a vocational institution for young ladies which provided training in the fine arts. The school offered women the opportunity to pursue a career and to earn a personal income through the sale of their pottery. In 1895, the college began producing wares for profit. Each student was given 50 percent of the sale price of her pieces.

Early types of Newcomb wares were usually decorated with simple, painted-on designs and finished with a glossy coat. The school stressed the importance of uniqueness, so each student was encouraged to show individual creativity. Many Newcomb pots featured regional flora, such as palm and pine trees, magnolias, water lilies, and Spanish moss. During the 1920s and 1930s, Newcomb Pottery produced some of its most well-known and collectible matte-glazed ware. Eventually, the designs of Newcomb Pottery came to be considered “old fashioned,” and attempts to modernize the look of the pottery failed. After nearly fifty years of production, the pottery school at Newcomb College was closed in 1940.

Three examples of American art pottery were displayed at the Rosenberg Library during the month of January in 2007. These included a Newcomb vase, a Rookwood bowl, and a Van Briggle vase.