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Newark Museum Exhibits its Pioneering Pottery Collection

The Newark Museum art pottery collection began with an exhibition in 1910, just one year after the institution was founded by John Cotton Dana, and since has grown to be one of the country’s premier holdings. Exhibited as a collection only twice in the past 25 years, in 1984 and 1994, the Museum honors its Centennial with a remarkable exhibition, 100 Masterpieces of Art Pottery, 1880-1930, opening September 23 and running through January 10, 2010.

Fulper Pottery Company
Fulper Pottery Company, Flemington, New Jersey, “Effigy” bowl with “blue of sky and blue matte” glazes, 1914, 6 3/8 in. high x 10 5/8 in. diameter. Purchase 1915 15.2

The Newark Museum’s art pottery collection began with Dana’s pioneering recognition of ceramics as an art form 100 years ago and continued with acquisitions of modern ceramics throughout the 20th century. According to Director Mary Sue Sweeney Price, “Newark was one of the first museums, if not the first, to see ceramics as art in the way painting and sculpture were seen by other museums.”

According to Ulysses Grant Dietz, Senior Curator and Curator of Decorative Arts, “John Cotton Dana also envisioned art pottery as a way to involve ordinary people with art; a way to draw them into his fledgling museum and into his library. He was very interested in the potential mass market that could be reached by art pottery in a way they could not be reached by paintings.”

“Informing and involving ordinary people in the wonders of the world of art continues to this day – 100 years later – to be his legacy and the central theme of the Newark Museum’s mission,” Dietz said.

“One hundred years ago, pots were art,” said Dietz. “The vase was the ideal art object because, while still ‘functional,’ it could be set aside and admired purely for its beauty and the skill with which it was created. Artistic pots were also more accessible to the general public than paintings and sculpture, and thus were the perfect kind of art for the newly-founded Newark Museum in 1909,” he explained.

100 Masterpieces will track the notion of ceramics as art from the Gilded Age of the 1880s to its evolution into studio pottery by the outset of the Great Depression. The Newark Museum’s collection of modern ceramics was begun in 1910 with an exhibition entitled simply Modern American Pottery. The centennial project will feature more than 100 pieces of pottery and porcelain, including American and Native American as well as European and Asian ceramics. The exhibition will be entirely drawn from the Museum’s own collection, with the exception of two loans from the American Decorative Arts 1900 Foundation, according to Dietz.

The “birth” of art pottery was part of the larger arts and crafts movement born in England in the 1860s. In the United States art pottery was hugely influenced by the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia in 1876, and the ensuing American embrace of such diverse aesthetic notions as Japanism and the Colonial Revival. William DeMorgan (1839-1917) in London and John Bennett in New York City were among the best known figures to explore pottery as art in the 1870s and 1880s, with painterly designs that romantically evoked the Middle Ages and the exotic East. Maria Longworth Nichols, a society lady from Cincinnati, brought art pottery into the American mainstream in the wake of the national Centennial, imbuing her Rookwood Pottery’s output with romanticized Japanism combined with French slip-decorating techniques.

As the nineteenth century came to a close, art pottery split into two distinct camps—the china painters and art potters. Decorated porcelains continued to play a major role in the world of artistic ceramics during the later Gilded Age, continuing a factory-based tradition with roots in the eighteenth century. Royal Worcester in England and Trenton’s Ceramic Art Company were key players in this camp. Art potteries, conceived as small-scale cooperative business ventures with a distinct division of labor, capitalized on arts and crafts ideals of handcraft and design. Ceramic decorating, which was a genteel hobby for well-to-do women, was at the same time a viable career path for both men and women in this period.

“Within the realm of art pottery, a further three-way subdivision produced artwares that were either focused on minimalist forms with remarkable, beautiful glazes; or on the sculptural aspects of pottery as a three-dimensional form; or on the notion of the vessel as a canvas to be filled by an artist, emphasizing painterly effects,” Dietz said. These approaches would continue to inform the art pottery world even as it moved from the Art Nouveau to Modernism in the 1920s and began to evolve into the studio pottery movement of the post-Depression years.

100 Masterpieces of Art Pottery, 1880-1930 is accompanied by a full-color catalogue funded by The Helen R. Buck Foundation.