Art Pottery, Politics and Food
Wednesday, March 12, 2003
This follows my post from Monday March 10:
John Gardner Low's plastic sketches were not the only ceramic ware exhibited at the September 1879 Cincinnati Industrial Exhibition. Low's products were joined by "the first large display of ceramics decorated in the city" of Cincinnati. Unlike Low, the Cincinnati ware was mainly produced by women working together with men in embryonic professional relationships. Events, of course, are murky. Was this birth of an native American art form, as some have said, because of a catfight between the two female giants of American ceramic history? Or, was it a serious artistic competition such as the recent press touted friction between Picasso and Matisse? 1879 was the explosion. The fuse had been lit during Philadelphia's 1876 Centennial Exhibition. In particular, the Cincinnati Room of the Women's Pavilion, "with its impressive carved furniture, furnishings, interior architectural elements, and its painted china and stoneware, created a sensation" in an otherwise unexceptional showing of American products before a world audience. It was a triumph for the gregarious Benn Pitman, the man who gave friends of Maria Longworth Nichols' their first china painting sets in 1874, and his lady craftsmen from the University of Cincinnati's School of Design . It was also a triumph for Longworth's husband Colonel George Ward Nichols and her eccentric philanthropist father Joseph. As far as Maria Longworth Nichols and Mary Louise McLaughlin were concerned both "would in later years confess that the Centennial was a turning point in their lives."
In 1873 a boy who lived near the Longworth's Rookwood Estate, and who sketched people in pencil and ink for pocket money, gave Maria Longworth Nichols some of the china painting colors he had received as a gift from an uncle in Frankfort, Germany. Mrs. Nichols and a friend were soon enthralled by this new form of artistic expression and later joined with the boy, Karl Langenbeck, to improve their art and to import more china paints from Germany.
Through 1875 interest in china painting as a "promising field for the lucrative employment of women" spread throughout Cincinnati. A "Women's Executive Centennial Committee" was formed to raise funds for participation in the then upcoming Exposition in Philadelphia. This committee held an exhibit and sale of some of these decorated pieces of china on May 25, 1875. Some of the unsold pieces along with others were then shown at the Centennial one year later.
In 1877 Mary Louise McLaughlin discovered that she could mix mineral paints with a liquefied clay called slip to achieve successful underglaze painting in a range of colors. Later that same year her historic book, A Practical Method for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain, would be published. Also in 1877, Colonel Nichols would publish Art Education as Applied to Industry and Pottery, How It is Made in 1878. As a writer, speaker and advocate of design reform Nichols would join Pitman to influence many with a concept of culture as a commodity by striving to end the "indefinite repetition of the forms adopted by other people and periods" and having as a goal "pure American art, that is an art expression representing the thought and culture of this age and nation."
Then, within the first five months of 1879 McLaughlin would form the Pottery Club, Longworth Nichols would begin serious potting at the Frederick Dallas Pottery on what is now McMicken Avenue and Patrick Coultry and Thomas Wheatley would form a partnership to produce "faience" using a process Coultry had observed McLaughlin using when her pieces were fired in his kiln. Swirling controversies, giant personalities and, I'm sure, staggering sexual tension. I wonder if Mr. Low quite knew what he was walking into with his ceramic sketches that first day in the Art Hall of Cincinnati's 1879 Exhibition?
Sources: The Longworths: Three generations of Art Patronage in Cincinnati by Denny Carter Young 1982 Toward a Correct Taste: Women and the Rise of the Design Reform Movement in Cincinnati by Kenneth R. Trapp 1982 American Art Tile by Norman Karlson 1998 The Book of Rookwood Pottery by Herbert Peck 1968
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