Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise
A little more than forty years ago, the Princeton University Art Museum was home to the first serious exhibition devoted to the American Arts and Crafts movement. To employ an overused word, the event was “seminal.” After its relatively short run of two months and then its subsequent stays at the Art Institute of Chicago and the Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., the exhibition lived on in the form of its splendidly designed catalogue. Compared to the many larger and more luxurious publications on the subject that have since followed, the Art Museum’s black-and-white offering was modest, but it proved to be a cornerstone in the field of American decorative arts for decades to follow. In 1992, to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the exhibition, there was an eighth printing of the catalogue—a sure sign of its value and longevity.
“The Princeton Exhibition” (it is always referred to that way, even though the Art Institute of Chicago was a cosponsor) had almost three hundred examples of furniture, lighting, printed books, and pottery. In terms of sheer mass, the furniture predominated, but in terms of object count, more than half of the exhibition was devoted to American Arts and Crafts ceramics. They were displayed at the far end of the exhibition space in nine identical vitrines that contained examples of pottery from across the country. As with the furniture and domestic accessories, all regions were represented, from the Northeast and the Midwest to as far as New Orleans, Colorado Springs, and Pasadena. One of the works on display, a handsome green-glazed Grueby Pottery vase, was not a stranger to the building. For many decades it had stood at the door of the old museum, not as a work of art but as a sand jar to receive extinguished cigarettes. It had been donated by Princeton benefactor Allan Marquand in 1903, but had it been offered as a useful object or an objet d’art? Another vase in the 1972 exhibition was a dark, beautifully executed Rookwood Pottery vase with a Japanese-inspired dragon and an exotic golden crystalline glaze. This precious work had proudly been exhibited by Rookwood at the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 and had been bought by a local family whose descendant was one of Princeton’s prominent alumni. Some years before the 1972 exhibition, the Rookwood vase had been offered to the Art Museum but had been refused because, as it was explained, such ceramics were not deemed suitable for a museum such as Princeton’s. Instead, it was donated to the Cooper Hewitt in New York and now had to be borrowed back. Times were changing and our past was being reappraised. Indeed, the Art Museum began to intentionally acquire examples of Arts and Crafts furniture and pottery, such as a tyg (a three-handled cup) decorated with a design of pea pods that had been made at Newcomb College in New Orleans.
This spring similar tygs, including one with a design based on a cross section of a plant, will be featured along with other ceramics in Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise, an exhibition devoted to Newcomb College’s handicraft workshops. Newcomb College had been created in 1887 through a donation by Josephine L. Newcomb in honor of her deceased daughter Sophie. It was intended to educate Southern young women and it was attached to Tulane University, an otherwise all-male domain. In addition to training in the sciences and humanities, the college offered an art curriculum in painting, drawing, and ceramic decoration. For one, this responded to ideas voiced by the British designer William Morris that favored the handmade in the face of growing industrialization; also, it was thought that handicrafts offered genteel women the possibility for remunerative work that would allow them to live independent lives. Gradually other crafts were introduced into the curriculum, but always under the umbrella of “Newcomb Pottery.”
Whereas the 1972 exhibition at Princeton included fourteen works of Newcomb pottery, the current exhibition includes more than fifty examples of their ceramics, as well as an equally large array of beautifully embroidered table runners and wall hangings, chased brass and silver metal wares, jewelry, and a host of drawings, prints, and book bindings. In contrast to the 1972 exhibition, which had a cutoff date of 1917, Women, Art, and Social Change brings the account forward to the start of World War II and displays the evolution of taste from British Reform design at the turn of the century to Art Deco and modernism. Moreover, it examines the history of this craft program within the historical and social context of the “New South” after the Civil War, the rise of suffragism, and issues of feminism. Perhaps most fitting of all, the exhibition considers the place of art training within the context of universities.
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.