From the boughs of the dark broad-spreading live oak and the phantom-like arms of lofty cypresses, the long motionless pendants of pale gray moss point down to their inverted images in the unruffled waters beneath them. The light of the declining sun at one moment brightens the tops of the cypresses, at another glows like a furnace behind their black branches, or as the voyager reaches a western turn of the bayou, swings slowly round, and broadens down, in dazzling crimsons and purples upon the mirror of the stream. -- George Washington Cable, quoted on a 1909 calendar made at Newcomb College by Rosalie Urquhart -- --
Cable's description of the Louisana landscape could well serve for the decoration of Newcomb Pottery, now enjoying a great revival in auction houses and museum collections.
At last the charming and important 1895-1940 ceramics, along with a few other craft works (woodblock prints, brass bookends and lamp shades, bookbinding and woodwork), can be properly appreciated in an exhibit recently opened at the Renwick Gallery and continuing through Feb. 24. Under the auspices of the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibitions Service, the show from Newcomb College of Tulane University -- accompanied by colorful illustrations and informative history by Jessie Poesch, with kiln marks and dating by Walter Bob and Sally Main Spanola -- will go on to eight other museums in the next two years.
In the postbellum revival of regionalism, as Mary Given Sheerer, Newcomb's first china decoration teacher, wrote in 1899, "the whole thing was to be a southern product, made of southern clays, by southern artists, decorated with southern subjects."
Walking through the exhibition at the Renwick, you can see that the artists were faithful to their principles. The clays came from Bayou Bogufalaya, across Lake Pontchartrain. Oleander blossoms, pine trees, rabbits, tortoises, water lilies, angel's trumpets, chrysanthemums, black-eyed Susans -- the decoration glorifies the southern fauna and flora as has nothing other than the poems of Sidney Lanier.
An especially languid design of moon and moss is used on several pieces. A 1927 tall matte-glazed lamp base shows the moon glimpsed through live oak trees, hung heavy with moss. The moon shines through cypress trees on a 1918-19 base. A 1933 abstract design on a tall vase called "Grand Isle" is meant to suggest sandy beaches with shells, but looks more like spider webs. The so-named Espanol designs, extracted in the 1920s from a New Orleans fireplace, are rather close to Austrian Secession designs of a decade earlier. Much of the pottery is in a pleasant sage green or blue, but not all. Some are glazed in red luster, browns, beiges and purple.
Thanks to the women's building at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876 and the New Orleans Cotton Exposition of 1884-85, pottery painting was considered a genteel occupation for women who were poor enough to need to work but too well bred to actually do anything useful.
In Louisiana, after the great loss of men, especially young men, in the Civil War, the question of women's self-sufficiency gained a new importance. In 1894, Sheerer moved from Cincinnati, where women's groups were all fired up by pottery, to teach pottery and china decoration at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans. (A man, of course, was hired to make and glaze the pottery.) The effort succeeded in giving employment to many women, some of whom established their own studios, and won a great number of exposition medals. The pottery sold well, both locally and elsewhere.
Regional though its motifs are, the Newcomb pottery is one of the best American manifestations of a larger art trend -- the Arts and Crafts Movement. At the turn of the century, the movement that began with William Morris in England and spread to Scotland, Finland and Austria, had reached the United States. Much more than an art style, it was a way of life, emphasizing the medieval guild system wherein masters taught apprentices, all men were brothers, all women sisters and handwork was the center of all life.
The Arts and Crafts Movement of sturdy, rustic, medieval simplicity was, ironically, the mother of the romantic Art Nouveau as practiced in France, Belgium and Italy. There a basic belief in nature became the primary subject of art -- elaborated with the sinuous curve, organic asymmetry and a general tendency to go too far with floral festooning. The Newcomb pottery, according to the time, talents and temptations of the artists, includes examples of both the simple, line-is-all design and the more extravagant ornamentations.
Some Newcomb pottery also transforms the decadence of the Austrian Symbolist Movement to reflect the New Orleans romantic reputation of somewhat seedy splendor. The heavy, earthy moodiness of mosses, mimosa, moon and mystery seem to emit scents of orange and jasmine, said by at least one authority to drive southerners mad with desire.
Today this handsome pottery, among the very best of its period, evokes a time, a place, a way of living and thinking that are not gone with the wind, but wafted away by the will-o'-the-wisp.