Beauty In Common Things: American Arts and Crafts Pottery

February 17, 2009

LeBlanc vase

This vase decorated by Maria Hoa LeBlanc in 1902 features large-scale animals, a relatively rare type of subject in the Newcomb repertoire. The bowl with rabbits can be seen on one of the shelves in an early photograph of the Newcomb salesroom. Newcomb Pottery, bowl decorated with stylized rabbits, 1902, height 7 inches.

St. Petersburg, Fl. -- Grueby, Teco, Rookwood, Marblehead, Saturday Evening Girls. The list of American art potteries from the Arts and Crafts period amassed by the Two Red Roses Foundation is boundless; however, the representative works on view in a current exhibition showcasing the collection is intentionally limited. The reason is simple: the closely cropped examples are representative of the best of the best. The desired end result: to focus the eye not only upon iconic forms of what has been termed by some close to the exhibition as an overlooked era in American history, but also on the movement in its entirety.

The Arts and Crafts movement is one whose theme has continually resonated throughout Twentieth Century history and continues to this day. There have been the art colonies that simultaneously began to flourish in the late 1800s, the more modern back-to-nature themes, the communal groups of hippies in the 1960s that spawned a "Mother Earth" ideology, organic living and, most recently, a movement that has been termed "green." Each conveys the Arts and Crafts theology of hands-on production, simplicity and limiting the influences of the machine age to the greatest extent possible.

With this in mind, the Two Red Roses Foundation and its founder, Rudy Ciccarello, brought together 80 objects to form the exhibition "Beauty in Common Things: American Arts and Crafts Pottery from the Two Red Roses Foundation." The exhibition is on view through April 26 at the Museum of Fine Arts.

Approximately 80 superb examples of pottery from the American Arts and Crafts movement by such esteemed potteries as Newcomb College, Paul Revere, Walrath and Overbeck, as well as those aforementioned, have been painstakingly selected from the collection. Furniture and paintings are also included to help place the ceramic objects into the context of the overall picture in which they were created and intended to be seen and used. The exhibition is curated and the catalog written by Dr Martin Eidelberg, professor emeritus of art history at Rutgers University, and Dr Jonathan Clancy of Sotheby's Institute of Art.

Saturday Evening Girls bowl

A fanciful bowl with stylized geese, executed 1914, Saturday Evening Girls, probably designed by Edith Brown, executed by Fannie Levine, diameter 11 5/8 inches. Several variant designs with strutting and swimming geese were produced. In some instances, they walk quietly; here, the seven geese all squawk and flap their wings, each somewhat differently.

"Thirty years ago, almost no American museum collected works from the Arts and Crafts movement," stated Eidelberg. A highly respected Arts and Crafts authority, exhibition curator and author on the period, Eidelberg takes great pleasure in what he observes as a change on the horizon. Citing recent "promised gifts" of Arts and Crafts furniture from the Stephen Gray collection to the Wadsworth Atheneum and American art pottery from the Robert Ellison collection to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Eidelberg notes, "All this bespeaks a new movement." Although many museums have over the past couple decades added "a few representative pieces of pottery and furniture, still, their late concession to the beginning of the Twentieth Century always pales in relation to the way that they have fervently paid homage to the Eighteenth Century," exclaims Eidelberg. "There now is a growing recognition of the disparity that exists, and the entry of Arts and Crafts from the turn of the century into American museums is becoming increasingly significant."

Nowhere is that mindset more evident than at the Two Red Roses Foundation, a repository for what has surely become the world's most important collection of American Arts and Crafts pottery. Although certainly not limited to the ceramics of the period, its dedication to the Arts and Crafts movement has been revealed recently with two landmark exhibitions. "Color Woodblock Prints," an exhibition that closed earlier this year at the Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art in Tarpon Springs, Fla., and "Beauty in Common Things."

Newcomb Pottery - lidded jar with stylized daisies

Newcomb Pottery, lidded jar with a design of stylized daisies, 1903. Designed and executed by Harriet "Hattie" Coulter Joor; potted by Joseph Fortune Meyer. Glazed earthenware, height 7 ¾ inches.

The foundation's holdings were developed by Ciccarello, who, after admiring a reproduction Stickley bookcase, became enthralled with the period and began thoroughly studying the American Arts and Crafts movement. "I grew to appreciate the historical importance of the movement, the craftsmen and the wonderful pieces of art they produced," says Ciccarello. "I was hooked."

It took little more than ten years for Ciccarello to amass his private collection. "It sold to Rudy" became a common phrase heard at the public auctions where he purchased many of the items seen in the collection, and he bought privately as well.

As his tastes refined and the collection grew, it eventually became too large to be accommodated in his home and he was forced to store many of the pieces in a warehouse. With a strong desire to share his appreciation for the objects that he so dearly admired, the Two Red Roses Foundation was formed to increase awareness of the Arts and Crafts movement, in part through exhibitions and the advancement of scholarship.

In addition to pottery, the foundation's holdings encompass furniture, ceramic tiles, woodblock prints, metalwork, lighting and paintings.

'Beauty in Common Things' incorporates some of the Two Red Roses Foundation's furniture and paintings in the display so as to place the ceramic objects in context and create environments that enhance understanding of the Arts and Crafts movement in America," states Eidelberg. "The quiet strength and dignity of the matte glazed Grueby vases is matched by the richly grained oak furniture of Gustav Stickley. The gentle color combinations and Japanese-inspired decoration on the work of the Marblehead Potteries find their counterpoint in the exquisitely painted furniture of the Byrdcliffe Colony."

A rare Grueby mark

The rare mark on the underside, simply the name "GRUEBY" arranged in a horizontal line, suggests a very early date for this example, probably before December 1899 when the more standard circular trademark was registered. This pot, one of the first of Grueby's matte glazed vessels to be publicized, was illustrated in the December 1898 issue of House Beautiful. Designed by George Prentiss Kendrick and executed circa 1898, 9 ¼ inches high.

Eidelberg and Clancy survey the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement and the origination of the movement in England, what it meant there and how it developed in the United States in the early 1890s. Also explored is the methodology behind the creation of actual objects.

With the establishment of Arts and Crafts societies, first in San Francisco, then Boston, and finally across the country, theorists and craftspeople reacted differently to the effects of industrialization and promoted individual creativity at every turn. But, as the curators note, "the tension between handmade and serial production remained one of the fundamental and insolvable problems within the Arts and Crafts movement. Reform theory praised handwork as of supreme importance, but the reality of the modern economic world showed great accommodations."

Eidelberg and Clancy point out in the catalog that they co-authored that Arts and Crafts theorists viewed work as "a beneficent, transformative force. As William Morris famously stated, 'Art is man's expression of his joy in labour.'" Handicraft, it was argued, offered an alternative to mind-numbing and exploitative factory jobs.

View of the exibition area

A view of the exhibition area showing the integration of furniture with accessories from the Arts and Crafts period. Furniture includes a Harvey Ellis-designed inlaid chair and fall front desk by Gustav Stickley and a Grueby tile-top table. Grueby pottery fills the cases on either side.

Arts and Crafts pottery developed partly in response to British theorists, but soon developed its own distinct American flavor. Reacting against the crassness of industrial production and seeking to elevate the decorative arts to the level of the fine arts, fervent Arts and Crafts reformers advocated the reintegration of art into everyday life. The implications were both social and aesthetic and touched upon critical issues such as the role of women in society and the search for a modern style. Exploring the prominent role that women played in the American Arts and Crafts movement, the exhibition points out that many of the accomplished ceramists were females. While some of the women performed all of the duties of a potter, from throwing the vessel on a potter's wheel to decorating, others followed in the more genteel role of decorating that had been established centuries earlier in the tradition of china painting.

Shirayamadani vase with electroplated dragon

Designed and executed by Kataro Shirayamadani, 1900, this vase with electroplated dragon was created at the factory's metal mounting department, unlike the rococo and Art Nouveau silver overlays by Gorham that were applied to Rookwood vases away from the factory. Using a process developed by Shirayamadani, the process allowed designers to model three-dimensional clay forms that were then plated in metal. Height, 11½ inches.

"This feminist strain is one of many aspects of the Arts and Crafts movement that strike us today as modern and progressive," states Eidelberg. Perhaps the most recognized of the female potters was Maria Longworth Nichols, born in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1848 to perhaps the wealthiest family in the city of that time.

In 1879, along with her friend and fellow ceramics painter Mary Louise McLaughlin, Nichols commissioned the creation of an underglaze and overglaze kiln at a local pottery shop and began decoratively painting the pottery produced there. A year later, Nichols founded the Rookwood Pottery, becoming the first woman from Cincinnati to own a business of this sort. In 1882, Nichols won a gold medal at the Tenth Cincinnati Industrial Exposition, and in 1900 she won the Grand Prix at the Paris Exposition.

Highlighted examples from the exhibition include an exquisite vase with a three-dimensional electroplated dragon designed and decorated by Kataro Shirayamadani, 1900. Unlike the rococo and Art Nouveau silver overlays by Gorham and other companies that were applied to Rookwood vases away from the factory, the electroplated bronze dragon on this vase was created internally at the factory's metal mounting department. Using a process developed by Shirayamadani, the process allowed designers to model three-dimensional clay forms that were then plated in metal and applied to the pots.

Rhead pottery vase

The impact of Arthur W. Dow's teachings is particularly evident in this iconic vase. Rhead Pottery vase with a design of a stylized landscape, circa 1914-17. Designed and executed by Frederick Hurten Rhead, glazed earthenware; height 11¼ inches. Purchased by the Two Red Roses Foundation in 2007, this vase still holds the record price paid at auction of more than $500,000.

A painted matte glazed vase decorated with poppies, 1900, executed by Albert Valentien is masterfully painted in nuances of color in the leaves and petals as though rendering a botanical study. The Paul Revere Pottery, begun by Bostonians Edith Brown and Edith Guerrier, was formed to assist young women improve their lives and initially comprised low-income immigrants. The female potters that worked there eventually became known as the Saturday Evening Girls. Numerous pieces are on view, including a bowl with a design of stylized geese, executed 1914, probably by Edith Brown and executed by Fannie Levine.

The pottery produced several variant designs with strutting and swimming geese. Whereas in some instances they walk quietly, on this example the seven geese all squawk and flap their wings, each somewhat differently. When a set of dishes with this theme was published in The Ladies' Home Journal in 1911, it was referred to as "Goosey-Goosey Gander," a literary reference probably intended to reflect designs that were based on nursery rhymes.

Four of the seven Overbeck sisters, discouraged from marriage by their mother and encouraged to pursue work in the arts, came together to form a successful and well-known ceramics cooperative in their Indiana family home. An exceptional vase with a design of stylized Joe Pye weed, circa 1911-15, was potted by Elizabeth Overbeck, and designed and executed by Hannah Overbeck.

Like many artists trained as china decorators, the Overbeck sisters prepared nature studies of the plants they intended to use as decorative motifs, but in the years after 1900 these nature studies tended toward a Japanese aesthetic: flowers, buds and leaves arranged decoratively within a vertical format. Several years before the sisters founded the pottery, Margaret Overbeck reminded readers of Keramic Studio that: "Many an otherwise fair design has been spoiled by using too many strong pure colors... Safety lies in the greyed tones with sometimes a bit of brilliant color." This vase exemplifies the beauty of such a subdued palette.

Auctioneer James Bakker looks over a chiffonier

Auctioneer James Bakker, center, looks over a chiffonier made at the Byrdcliffe Arts and Crafts Colony with Two Red Roses founder Rudy Ciccarello prior to an auction in 2005 as Michelle Weinzierl looks on. Ciccarello purchased the rare cabinet with decoration by Hermann Dudley Murphy for a record paid at auction of more than $200,000. -Antiques and the Arts Weekly photo by David S. Smith

Newcomb College in New Orleans was the sister school of Tulane University and was considered to be one of the premier women's schools in the South. Newcomb students brought their artistic talent to pottery, while mastering new techniques at the college. Several examples are on view, including perhaps the star of the show, a bowl with a design of stylized rabbits from 1902. Designed and executed by Marie de Hoa LeBlanc and potted by Joseph Fortune Meyer, the vase features large-scale animals, a relatively rare type of subject in the Newcomb repertoire.

Another unusual example of Newcomb College is a lidded jar with an impressed design of stylized daisies, 1903. The delightful and colorful pot was designed and executed by Harriet "Hattie" Coulter Joor and potted by Joseph Fortune Meyer.

When asked if he would follow in the footsteps of Gray and Ellison with "promised gifts to museums," Ciccarello stated resoundingly, "No, there will not be any promised gifts. The future is clear," he said, in regard to the eventual disposition of the collection. "The Two Red Roses Foundation will eventually build a museum, which will house the entire collection." He added that "a location has not yet been chosen, the funds have already been provided to build the museum, which I expect to be finished in three to five years."

Ciccarello was quick to add that, like many museums, some items from the foundation's collection may eventually be deaccessioned. "Aside from some items where we are able to find better examples, nothing will be sold," he said. "It will all be available to advance the scholarship and the understanding of the Arts and Crafts movement."

The Two Red Roses Foundation is a nonprofit educational institution dedicated to promoting the American Arts and Crafts movement. The collection will be part of other upcoming exhibitions and is available for viewing in a private gallery setting by appointment.

The exhibition catalog is available in the Book Store for $8.95. For further information, contact the Museum of Fine Arts at 1-727-896-2667.