The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise
The American Arts and Crafts movement emerged full force in the years before and after 1900, at a time when diametrically opposed views of the future clashed. Many Americans believed in the power of the machine, the growth of capitalism, and the heroicization of rich captains of industry. Others, by contrast, idealistically looked back to an earlier age thought to be more ethical and religious, when communal interests prevailed, and all that was good was made by hand. This visionary, utopian movement could be found across the Northeast and the Midwest, but it also took root in the South and West. The handicraft shops established at the H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College in New Orleans, Louisiana, were an integral part of the movement and are the subject of Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise, an exhibition featuring the exceptional ceramics for which Newcomb Pottery became best known as well as less familiar textiles, metalwork, jewelry, graphic arts, and bookbinding.
The newly founded Newcomb College, associated with the all-male Tulane University, was created to provide higher education for young Southern white women. Whereas there were already many such institutions of female learning elsewhere in the country, there were few in the Gulf region and none in Louisiana. In addition to coursework in the traditional humanities and sciences, Newcomb instituted a full program in painting and sculpture, and then decided to expand into the applied arts, specifically ceramics. Unlike other academic programs and art colonies that arose around 1900, the ceramic program at Newcomb began as a simple addition to the school curriculum, without any overarching philosophy. Its idea was to teach the young women a skill that would enable them to earn money in a dignified way, and since it was allied with art, that was all to the better. Although few of the women in this program ever became independent professional ceramists, the experiment was nonetheless significant educationally and socially, and it produced works of a special beauty.
A guiding idea was that the pottery produced by the students (at first undergraduates, later women in the graduate program, and eventually alumnae) would be sold by the school and a portion of the profit would be turned back to the makers. From almost the very start, the decision was made to emphasize the Southern aspects of the work and thus endow these wares with a distinctive, commercially attractive quality. Mary Sheerer, the supervisor of the program, emphasized, “The whole thing was to be a southern product, made of southern clays, by southern artists, decorated with southern subjects.” As suggested by the plate decorated by Esther Huger Elliot with a design of flowering cactus, Newcomb’s regionalist repertoire encompassed a wide variety of local flora and fauna: night-blooming cereus and magnolia blossoms, Louisiana iris and chicory, crepe myrtle and cypress trees, fish, marsh birds, and even the occasional alligator. The award of a bronze medal at the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 and the commercial sale of the pottery, both locally and nationally, encouraged local support and enthusiasm for the enterprise. The success of the Pottery led to work in several other media. In 1902 Newcomb College initiated a new endeavor: an embroidery department. While embroidery is a traditional “feminine” craft, Newcomb’s embroideries are far from traditional in technique and appearance. Created with long running stitches and bold combinations of bright colors, they resemble French Neo-Impressionist paintings, save for their reliance on Southern flora. Soon thereafter metalworking classes were introduced, and here too, despite the difference of medium, the aesthetics and decor of the Newcomb program remained essentially the same. Motifs of Southern flora cut from sheet brass and copper were soldered onto metal bookends and door knockers to parallel the flat, conventionalized designs on the pottery.
It is no accident that still today our sense of Newcomb decorative arts is as a romanticized view of the bayou country. Indeed, well into the 1920s, Newcomb continued to fuel this regionalist vision in order to maintain its distinctive Southern associations. As correspondence with some of the Pottery’s nationwide representatives testify, merchants felt that it was commercially desirable to maintain such a nostalgic portrayal of the South. But at the same time, Newcomb was responsive to shifts in taste. With the arrival of the Art Deco style in the United States, the Pottery found its own way to retain its traditions yet stay abreast of changing times. Although it continued to create vases decorated with flowers and misty scenes of moss-draped trees, it also sought more rhythmic geometric patterns. One of the most fascinating was a design called “Espanol” that was based on a traditional carved, reeded screen found in New Orleans homes from Louisiana’s Spanish Colonial period; it was at once Southern and yet seemingly modern in its geometrical structure. In the 1930s the Newcomb workshops went one step further and adopted the minimalism of the machine age. A silver pitcher made by Rosalie Roos Wiener around 1930 suggests the new direction being taken. Its emphasis on volumetric, undecorated form and the angularity of the handle define a mechanistic aesthetic. So too, the pottery eschewed applied ornament and relied on glazes whose rich colors were likened to the Louisiana climate. These wares belonged to an industrial era, yet still they were made by hand.
The remarkable aspect of this exhibition is that it includes these varied media from Newcomb’s beginnings at the turn of the century until its closure before World War II, while at the same time recording an important stage in women’s search for equality and independence. Nearly half a century after the Princeton University Art Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago organized The Arts and Crafts Movement in America (1972), inaugurating serious study in the field, Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise brings one of its greatest representatives into social and aesthetic focus.
Professor Emeritus of Art History, Rutgers University
Princeton Graduate School Class of 1965
This exhibition is organized by the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, and is supported by grants from the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. The exhibition at Princeton has been made possible by the Frances E. and Elias Wolf, Class of 1920, Fund; the Kathleen C. Sherrerd Program Fund for American Art; and the National Endowment for the Arts. Additional support has been provided by the Allen R. Adler, Class of 1967, Exhibitions Fund; and the Curtis W. McGraw Foundation.