WOMEN SIT in rows of desks in a room flooded with Louisiana sunlight, in an old photograph. Their gowns kiss the floor beneath their straight-back chairs. Each woman, her long hair drawn up off her neck in a chignon, poises her right hand before a vase. It is the turn of the century at Newcomb College, in the pottery decorating room, where "Newcomb Pottery" is being created.

The Renwick Gallery is displaying about 200 examples of the pottery made in this model industry that employed southern women.

They were part of the Arts and Crafts movement, dedicated to handcrafted, beautiful yet utilitarian work. From 1895 to 1940, such women painted, modeled in low relief and otherwise decorated pots and plates, rose jars and candlesticks -- and were able to make a living at it. Newcomb pottery was a step in the direction of women's education andsuffrage.

The subjects the women chose were the natural things around them -- the flora and fauna of the New Orleans area, the violets, viburnum and night-blooming cereus. They decorated plates with bachelor buttons or fish, and vases with waterlilies or tomatoes, rabbits or turtles. Changing with fashion, the decorators eventually departed from nature to experiment in art deco and the abstract.

Though it's said that no two pieces of Newcomb pottery are alike -- there were about 70,000 pieces produced in all -- they are not vastly different, either. Certain misty hues of blue and green predominate. The pots themselves are rather ordinary shapes, but the women weren't responsible for that. Male potters were hired for the job of making the basic forms.

Mixing clay, throwing pots and firing the kiln were considered men's work. The women had the more genteel job, sitting in their lacy, light-colored dresses and creating delicate designs.

NEWCOMB POTTERY: AN ENTERPRISE FOR SOUTHERN WOMEN, 1895-1940 -- At the Renwick Gallery through February 24, 1985.