Art Exhibit: American pottery born out of the post Civil War South

Throughout history, there have been small colonies of artists working collectively, forming idyllic communities. The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise was such a collective, considered one of the most significant producers of American art pottery of the 20th century. Newcomb’s artists, who left a lasting legacy in the design world, were all women. But there’s often trouble in paradise, and all utopias must fall.

Following the Civil War (1865-1877) the Newcomb Pottery emerged in New Orleans as a radical experiment, one representing an opportunity for Southern women to train as artists and support themselves and live independent lives. The H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College for Women, a division of Tulane University (at that time an all-male domain), offered a liberal education to “genteel” women to prepare them for work without “loss of dignity,” and inspired them with opportunities in crafts and education. In additional to training in the sciences and humanities, the college offered courses in painting, drawing and ceramic decoration.

Working as a collective, these women did not conform to the stereotypical image of the Southern belle. A large graduation photograph of them on a wall of the exhibit Women, Art and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise, on view at the Princeton University Art Museum through July 10, shows the women with loosely knotted hair under mortar boards and in long gowns. Another photograph shows them at a wooden worktable, white blouses buttoned up to their necks, in a studio with glass cases filled with pottery, busily painting vases and such. The women of the Newcomb Pottery Enterprise produced pottery, textiles, jewelry, metal, graphic arts and bookbinding.

There was, at the time, a rising enthusiasm for the British Arts & Crafts Movement. Designer and writer William Morris advocated for bringing art into daily life, unifying the aesthetics with the functional. Morris and his associates emphasized a return to handiwork in what was becoming an industrial and mechanized world. It was a call to reject the dehumanizing nature of work in factories and the shoddiness of mass-produced objects.

This social and aesthetic movement was introduced to the American public at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. American visionaries, such as Louis Comfort Tiffany, Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright brought a new sensibility to the Arts & Crafts Movement.

Newcomb Pottery, often with blue and bluish-green glazes, shows influences of Delftware, Japanese vases and Greek water carriers, yet is unique with Southern iconography: violets, crepe myrtle, cat’s claw flowers, live oak and other native Southern flora, as well as blue crabs.

“All handwork is not necessarily good, but all good work is handwork,” said Ellsworth Woodward, who directed the college, where all the pottery was to be thrown by hand and decorated individually. Men were hired for physically demanding tasks such as throwing pots and firing the kilns, as well as developing the glazes, but women did all the design and decoration.

And while women were encouraged to express their distinctive styles, the college strove to present a common voice, a “house style”—yet no designs were duplicated. Signatures of the style include irregularly spaced trees, based on an exercise by artist and educator Arthur Wesley Dow. Dow was an advocate for Japanese art and the Japanese system of balancing light and dark. His teachings altered the way Newcomb’s decorators developed their imagery—flattened shapes with strong outlines, abstract color and asymmetrical composition. Pieces that displayed a moon peeking from behind a moss-draped live oak became a popular motif.

The Newcomb women received medals for their work, and enrollment increased so the enterprise could move into its own building. Soon the work was acclaimed in Paris. Ceramic work, which included lamp bases, chocolate pots and tiles, expanded to include calligraphy, woodblock prints, watercolor paintings, greeting cards, book plates and needlework table runners and wall hangings.

The metalwork program began in response to a need for shades for the ceramic lamps. In metal the women also made ornately cut bookends, serving utensils, inkwells, chalices—in metal, artists both designed and executed the work. The metalwork department kept the enterprise financially viable in later years, as ceramic sales declined after the onset of the Great Depression. Among the top sellers were jewelry, rosaries and tableware.

But the women were overworked and underpaid. The first generation of Newcomb decorators worked long hours and received scant remuneration, after the costs of materials and firing was deducted. Even after winning awards and increasing sales, they were underpaid in comparison to other potteries of the time. Some of the women left for more profitable work in business.

Others worked on outside commissions where they could break away from the conformity of the Newcomb aesthetic.

With the onset of World War I, women took on men’s work while men fought on the front lines, and later, post-war employment boomed with the economy. The Arts & Crafts movement was replaced by Art Deco, abstraction and modernism. Newcomb adjusted with the times, taking on the angular forms of Cubism, but by the 1930s, Newcomb Enterprise was becoming an anachronism. Designers were finding other opportunities and the college was questioning whether the model belonged in the art curriculum.

The Pottery closed in 1940, just as the country was on the bring of another war and an era during which women would become “Rosie the Riveters.”

Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise is organized by the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service and includes more than 50 examples of ceramics as well as textiles, metal ware, jewelry, prints and book bindings, and examines the history of the program within the context of suffragism and issues of feminism.

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