The Ceramic Art in America
SOME curious information is supplied by Mr. John F. Watson regarding the treatment of “ æsthetie tea,” as Carlyle calls it, in the olden time. When the aromatic herb was first introduced into Salem, it was customary to boil it in an iron kettle, to strain off the liquor, and, having placed the boiled leaves in a dish, to butter them. They were then eaten, and the decoction was used, without milk or sugar, to wash them down. “ Surely,” says the annalist, “ the modern mode of taking tea in French porcelain gilt cups, with patent loaf-sugar and cream, stirred with a silver spoon, is more delicate, refined, and elegant.” This being readily conceded, and no demur being made to the substitution of the decoction for the buttered leaves, the subject of tea-drinking is not thereby taken out of the realm of debate. When the proper position of tea in domestic economy dawned upon the Western mind, the tea-service was the next topic of discussion. It has not been disposed of yet. Styles and tastes vary and change. Oldfashioned people were led away by various degrees of beautiful uniformity, or uniform beauty, and set their hearts on the services, many of which still survive to charm us with designs and colors both sombre and gay, complex and chaste. Lately there has sprung up a heresy, very attractive it must be confessed, to the effect that sets are a long-standing mistake. Good taste, it is said, demands variety, and the harlequin is the true king. Let, therefore, a heavily flowered tea-cup from China be flanked on the one hand by a delicate specimen of Sevres, and on the other by a more robust representative of England; while elsewhere are arrayed the wares of Saxony, Berlin, Italy, Spain, and Japan.
In the ceramic art, the “centuries of far-off beauty” lead to that near at hand. The routes by which it has traveled centre in our tea-table, and its steps are marked in our collections. As the fragrant beverage is sipped, and the light shines through the tilted porcelain cup, the different stages of the art and skill that produced it may be thought over. It may be French, English, German, or Oriental, but in any case it is the representative of an art that was, in all primitive faiths, the gift of the gods. It becomes a serious matter, too, when, to change the scene, one realizes that the massive granite ware of the restaurant is the nineteenth-century development of a skill derived by direct teaching from heaven. All that this means is, of course, that early piety in this way solved a problem that to civilized inquiry is a problem still. Whoever the first potter may have been, he laid the foundation of an art of which ceramicomania is not the least remarkable product. The refuse of the savage becomes venerable to his civilized successor, — such are the wonders of time. A broken potsherd may fill a gap in the construction of some beautiful theory of progression. The ceramic chain binding the youth of the world to its old age derives its greatest value from being unbroken; and no potter that ever lived can be overlooked, no ware, however humble, can be despised. No doubt, if some of the potters of the brave days of old could look back to this mundane sphere, they would be both amused and astonished to find how valuable have become the coarse and inartistic vessels to which they and their neighbors and customers had attached so little importance, and to see them placed in museums and collections, and commented on as links and as early buds on the ceramic branch of that art which has its roots in chaos and its loftiest branches beyond mortal ken. To handle one of these old vessels is like shaking hands with one of the pioneers of humanity across the gulf of time. If it be examined closely, a finger mark may be found, or an indentation made by the nail of a potter who lived ages ago. It represents an idea, and as it is turned round a dim perception is felt of the fact that, with all its rudeness, it is a result of the promptings of a sense of beauty, inarticulate almost, like the gasping of a dumb man trying to relieve his surcharged heart in speech. In that respect it resembles every other vessel produced by the potter’s hand. It is a record, and has its place in history.
The New World, in so far as its ceramic art is concerned, differs in no essential respect from the Old. Pottery reveals a singular harmony between the ancient peoples of the two continents in religious ideas and customs. There is, for example, a close connection between the Peruvian and the Egyptian conceptions of deity. Both people appear to have been conscious of the existence of a supreme being, whom they worshiped through certain natural forms chosen as the symbols of his attributes. The fine glazed pottery of Egypt has supplied numberless illustrations of the religion of the Nile, and it is from the paintings upon pottery that we derive almost our only knowledge of the religion of ancient Peru. A similar parallel might be drawn between the Chinese and the Peruvians. In regard to the respective customs of the East and the West, the pottery of Egypt and Peru indicates many points of similarity. It is hardly necessary to make special reference to burial urns, as they appear to have been used by nearly every ancient people, both in Europe and in America. They have been found in Etruria and in Roman graves, in Gaul, England, and elsewhere in Europe, and at several places in both South, Central, and North America. There is, however, one striking feature of the burial rite as it was practiced in Egypt and Peru deserving of notice. According to Dr. Birch, the Egyptians deposited vases in their tombs, filled with various kinds of food and other substances for the future use of the deceased. Some of them disclosed traces of articles of luxury or medicaments, such as a thick, viscous fluid, the lees of wine, fragrant, solid balsamic and unctuous substances, asphalt, a bituminous paste, a snuff-colored powder, and chopped straw. Turning to Peru, we find the Inca and his poor subject alike preparing for the supposititious needs of a future state. Graves have been opened in which, beside the remains of the dead, were discovered vessels of pottery containing maize and other edibles. That the latter were intended for subsistence in a future life there can be no doubt. From their pottery, therefore, we learn that two peoples as far removed from each other as the Egyptians and Peruvians held the same views of the next life, and regarded the indefinite future as a mere prolongation of the present.
From what has been said it may be inferred that an examination of the pottery of the New World must be conducted upon the same principles, and will be rewarded with the same historical results, as that of the pottery of the Old World. It is a matter of deep regret that the chronology of the former is very inexact. A few specimens may be ascribed to a certain age with approximate precision; of many others all that can be said is that they antedate the Spanish conquest; -with regard to an equally large number even conjecture is entirely at fault. These unfortunate circumstances are to be attributed to the mystery overhanging the early history of Peru.
The specimens at our command, as they may be studied in such collections as those of the Smithsonian Institution at Washington and the Peabody Museum at Harvard, are divisible into great and easily distinguishable classes. There are, first, the water vessels and domestic utensils, such as jars and pots, which have been exhumed on the coast settlements. There are, secondly, the vases, many of which are decorated with human faces in relief, which come from Cuzco and Lake Titicaca. A third division might be formed of the vessels modeled after the human head, in some of which are preserved wonderfully fine types of the heads and faces that attracted the potter. Upon the first of these classes, the water vessels of the Chimus and inhabitants of the towns upon the coast, the greatest amount of ingenuity seems to have been lavished. They supply a comprehensive and curious index to Peruvian customs. The typical shape is a rotund jar with an arching hollow handle, and spout projecting upward from the middle of the arch. The handle and spout are of identically the same pattern in many specimens where the body of the vessels is never seen twice alike. In devising the shape of the latter, the Peruvians followed a rule which is discovered in operation in every country with any claim to the possession of an original art. They found models in nature, and in the appliances and usages of their every-day life. One of their jars thus represents a musician; another, a primitive boat; and where the double body is brought into requisition, or where a short neck takes the place of the siphon handle, a hundred instances are supplied of an appeal for suggestions to the familiar surroundings of the potter. Thus, in one case, the two sections of the body consist of a stag and doe; in another, the orifice of one of twin bottles is occupied by a bird; in a third, one compartment is modeled after the human figure; in a fourth, the jar is single, and represents the human head and bust, the orifice being in the top of the head. A like rule was followed in designs graved in the paste, one being a rude and inartistic semblance of the human face, and another consisting of a bird. There are also painted representations of birds, serpents, and double-headed snakes, and these are found mingled with geometrical designs, such as diamonds arranged in vertical bands and other patterns, which recall the early efforts of the Greeks before their emancipation from Phœnician and Assyrian influences. Tbe art of Peru, broadly speaking, may be said to have sought expression in three distinct forms, which are met with in the ceramic art of every country that passed the most primitive stage, namely, the imitation of natural objects by the modeler, who follows the actual form, and the same imitation by means of graved outlines and colored representations.
Assuming an early connection between Peru and Central America, — of which the historical evidence is sufficiently decisive, — we find, with the exception of the colors found upon painted ware, little in common between the potteries of the two regions. Large, round, heavily shaped jars and painted tripodal basins from Nicaragua, and earthen images from Guatemala, take the place of the multiform drinking vessels of Peru. The relationship is closer between the Peruvian and the red unglazed vessels of the Aztecs. The double jar reappears among the latter, and there are many figures of deities, priests, and snakes which are peculiar to the early Mexican civilization. The Aztec black glazed ware seems to have been worked with considerable care, and the details of the designs are finished with scrupulous nicety. Some admirable specimens of this quality are in the Smithsonian Institution and in the Peabody Museum.
Coming next to the mound-builders, we discover a similarity between their earthenware remains and those of the Peruvians, such as would almost justify the inference that, at a period now impossible to specify, a connection existed between the two peoples. Many of their vessels are either modeled after natural objects, or are surmounted by representations more or less rude of human and animal heads. Their ceramic relics have been discovered from the lower part of the valley of the Mississippi northward through the middle section of the United States. That either through the moundbuilders, or through some other channel of which even less is known, a knowledge of working in clay passed from South to North America is a conclusion to which the inquirer is almost necessarily driven. There are two facts, equally singular and distinct, which can hardly be explained by any other hypothesis. The first of these is that corrugated ware has been found both in South America and among the Pueblos and Indians of North America. The manner of making this ware is so remarkable that it seems impossible that it could have been common to many tribes belonging to widely separated sections of the American continent without direct transmission or tradition from one source. The heavy clay was made into strips, which were coiled round a centre formed by keeping the end of the strip first used stationary at a point representing the centre of the bottom of the jar. As the strips were carried round one above the other, the layers were pressed firmly together, and in doing so the potter, by using either his nail or a piece of wood, gave the jars their corrugated appearance. Had a similar process been known to exist in any other country, the community of usage throughout America might have been disposed of without the assumption of a community of origin. But as it is a characteristic of a large variety of the ancient pottery of this continent only, the natural supposition is that here, in some unknown locality, it originated, and passed from tribe to tribe throughout a period which must have comprised many centuries. The second fact to be noticed is that both in the colors employed in decoration and in shapes there are many examples of the pottery of the Pueblos and the Moquis of the present time which are allied with the Peruvian. Among the North American Indian tribes the cultivation of ceramic art depended rather upon tribal tendencies and usage, as determined by location and habits, than upon choice. Those who approached most nearly the typical red man of the plains, whose pursuits of preference and necessity were war and the chase, found nothing attractive in the potter’s art. Those having more permanent settlements cultivated it to a greater extent, and with them are to be numbered the tribes which, through admixture of blood or other causes, are to be classed as exceptional. The Indians of New Jersey attained a skill never displayed by the nomadic hunters of the far West, and have left urns, clay pipes, and many fragmentary relics which attest their taste in decoration. There is one remarkable specimen described by Dr. C. C. Abbott, of Trenton, to which, for the sake of the custom indicated by it, special reference may here be made. It consisted of a quadrangular box of black pottery mixed with mica, ornamented on all sides with fine engraved lines. “ When taken out of the ground, it was full of a reddish powder of a faint aromatic odor, and contained many of the smaller bones of a deer. These bones had apparently not been exposed to heat at any time, but were probably the remains of venison buried with and intended as food for the deceased, whose skeleton was found within a few feet of the ‘ box.’ ” The Indians of New Jersey availed themselves of the same beds of clay to which the manufacturers of terra cotta now resort. Like many other pottery-making tribes in Illinois and the West, they mixed it with crushed shells, sand, or mica, and restricted their decorative efforts to a profusion of lines and dots. One remarkable fact regarding the old potters of the continent, in South, Central, and North America, is the absence of the potter’s wheel. Molding appears to have been practiced by them all, from the Peruvians to the Indians; but that a, contrivance, of the use of which in the Old World the evidences are so frequent, should have been unknown to any of the aboriginal inhabitants of America is not the least singular result of our investigations amongst their pottery.
One of the most important and at the same time most absorbing questions in connection with the present and future of the ceramic art in the United States arises in connection with the consideration of the clays of this country. It may be premised that the language employed by potters and by the owners of deposits in designating the clays of their respective sections is occasionally misleading. Thus there is a quality of clay in New Jersey which is generally called kaolin, although in no way entitled to the name. That State is the only one of the clay deposits of which we have any really exact knowledge based upon systematic observation and analysis. The importance of information upon this point may be illustrated by a reference to the usage of the Chinese, who, having arrived at a knowledge of the different deposits of kaolin within the bounds of the empire, are enabled to mix them with the confident precision resulting from long investigation and experiment. Their china clay is a compound of many deposits, each of which supplies an ingredient or possesses a quality lacking in the others. We have no similar knowledge of the clays of the country; and in view of the service performed by the state geologist of New Jersey, it appears eminently desirable that other state governments should follow its example, and supply the information which can otherwise be acquired only by assiduous and expensive experiment and skillful analysis on the part of individual potters. The chief ground on which an appeal to the States is based is that information provided by the State is for the benefit of all its citizens; that acquired by an individual will most certainly he withheld from competitors in business, and, while probably of great advantage to its fortunate possessor, is practically of no effect upon the furtherance of a great industry. With regard to all the clays for earthenware and stoneware of every grade, they are present in the United States in great abundance, and their peculiarities are pretty generally understood. With reference to kaolin, or porcelain clay, let it be remembered that without the discoveries of John Schnorr and Madame Darnet at Aue and St. Yrieix respectively, the world could never have admired the porcelains of Dresden and Sevres. No chemical combination could have taken the place of kaolin; and unless John Schnorr had discovered a road to additional wealth by means of an earthen hair-powder, and unless Madame Darnet had been led to economize by using an unctuous clay for soap, Europe might still have been laboring to imitate in artificial compounds the works of China and Japan. The possession of kaolin is the key to that branch of the ceramic art of these countries in which their universally admired triumphs of color, painting, and form have been accomplished. Similarly, in reference to America, it is upon its mineral wealth that an estimate of the future of its ceramic art must in a great measure depend.
The fact is therefore of the greatest moment that kaolin beds exist in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Missouri, and other States, and that feldspar — the petuntse of the Chinese — is present in quantities that are practically limitless. Quartz is also abundant. Between the possession of these deposits and taking full advantage of them in making porcelain there is, however, a considerable difference. This may be illustrated by certain remarks made by President Thomas C. Smith, proprietor of the only porcelain manufactory in the United States,— the Union Porcelain Works at Greenpoint, Long Island, —at a late meeting of the Potters’ Association. He said, in effect, that the production of clay for the best works and wares was one of the most pressing problems of the day, and then continued: “ We must buy front abroad. We are called upon for better and better wares, and there is scarcely an even American clay that we can buy. . . . The only clays we can get are from Pennsylvania, and they are not good; they are refractory, and do not yield readily to the fire. We need a better and more regular clay, upon the quality of which we can depend.” This want of evenness in the quality he illustrated by adducing an instance in which he used native clay without any foreign admixture; he felt a pride in doing so. He used up all he had, and sent for more. It arrived during his absence; his foreman made it up without trial, and the consequence was a loss of about two thousand dollars. There was no similarity between the two consignments, and Mr. Smith still finds it necessary to resort in part to imported kaolin.
At the same meeting of the association the committee on materials presented a report, in which the following very suggestive passage occurs: “ It would seem that the great natural productions of our country, embracing everything necessary for our use, when properly developed, ought to put within our reach materials at a cost which would enable us to compete successfully with foreign wares. But so long as imported English clays can be sold in our market at less prices than our own American clays, we shall certainly labor under great disadvantages. Some means should be devised to develop more rapidly and more thoroughly the resources of our own country in this direction. There is no doubt that these materials exist in great quantities, only waiting development to enable us to defy ruinous competition, and to hold the American market against the world.”
The existence of the finest clays is taken for granted in both passages, and the corollary is that when they have been subjected to the necessary preparatory processes, and the peculiarities of each deposit are thoroughly understood, the American manufacturer will be independent of foreign material. It could hardly be expected that Missouri clay sent to the manufacturer unwashed, as taken from the mines, should compete with the prepared kaolin of Cornwall. Means will no doubt be devised to reverse the present condition of things, and to give the native material the advantage in point of expense.
One of the most hopeful phases of the question of material is that at the present time nearly every manufacturer in Trenton is experimenting with native clays, in the search for a ware which shall gain for this country an entrée into the markets of the world with a purely American porcelain. Specimens from several Trenton potteries and from the New York City Pottery are very pure and translucent, and fully substantiate the right of the ware to the distinctive names of “ American porcelain,” “ semichina,” and “ ivory porcelain.” It differs from the natural or hard porcelains of China and Europe in the firing, and in having a boracic instead of a feldspathic glaze.
From these indications it may be gathered that the potters of America are now in a position very much akin to that of the French and Germans before experience had taught them the proper use of the kaolins of the Limousin and Saxony. That at some not far distant day we shall have an American kaolinic porcelain with a feldspathic glaze there is hardly room to doubt. The potters of America are fully alive to the wealth of their country in material, and are by patient experiment reaching upward toward a better native excipient for a higher form of art.
The history of pottery in the United States begins with the year 1765, when the firm of A. H. Hews & Co., now of North Cambridge, Massachusetts, was founded, and when Wedgwood in England was on the highway to fortune and fame. The factory was then several miles distant from its present site, and the exact character of its products is unknown. They are referred to in the old books of the firm merely as “ ware.” The company is now making an immense variety of flower-pots, fern eases, and garden vases. Many of the designs are attractive and decidedly original. A few years ago the Messrs. Hews introduced, under the name of “ Albert ware,” a fine quality of terra cotta, chiefly after the forms supplied by Greece, Ph&3339;nicia, and Etruria. They have also succeeded in reproducing Peruvian pottery, and notably a whistling jar in the Peabody Museum Collection. The Cambridge terra cotta has been very favorably received by decorators, and has probably been subjected to more determined efforts to obscure the natural beauty of the body by crude compositions in colors than any other ware of the present time. Fortunately, the least skillful decoration cannot completely destroy the work of the potter, or annihilate the charm attaching to the antique forms.
The first domestic porcelain enterprise was instituted at Philadelphia about the year 1770, but it was soon brought to a close, and for many years after that date the country was almost absolutely dependent upon Europe for household wares. Earthenware was made at Norwich, Connecticut, towards the end of last century, and in 1800 stoneware was being made at Herbertsville, New Jersey. The manufacture increased rapidly in the Eastern States, and in the first quarter of the present century the porcelain industry was revived by W. E. Tucker in Philadelphia. It spread to Jersey City and to Bennington, Vermont, and many attempts were made to establish it on Long Island; but the first enterprise by which plain domestic and decorated porcelain was placed upon the market was that of T. C. Smith & Sons, of Greenpoint. Success was not gained until after a protracted series of struggles. All the original proprietors retired from the strife, and Mr. Smith alone stuck to his project, and succeeded. The kaolin used at Greenpoint is partly imported and partly native, and the fact lifts already been accounted for. Rather than carry on a long series of expensive experiments, with a sole view to testing the qualities of American kaolins, Mr. Smith, while never leaving that object out of sight, prefers to retain his footing in the market by in part using English kaolin, the properties of which are well known and thoroughly understood. The Greenpoint porcelain is pure and strong, and a great deal of the decoration is original and chaste. Apart from the exceptional pieces, amongst which we might find several decorated with a degree of beauty and a perfection of execution that leave little more to be desired, the general average of decorated domestic ware is decidedly high, and is rapidly rising. The manufacturer has a double opposition to contend with. There is, first, the foreign competition ; and, secondly, the greater opposition of a wavering public taste, ready to accept anything from abroad rather than be at the trouble of estimating native products at their real value. This propensity affects all the ceramic productions of America. Their American nativity appears to be accepted as a conclusive argument against their excellence. Time, it is hoped, will overcome this foolish prejudice, and bring to American art the encouragement dearest to the artist,— sympathy and appreciation.
Mr. Smith’s first artistic works were the century vases exhibited at Philadelphia, on which, by means of panels bearing white reliefs, the story of the past century is vividly and forcibly told. A more recent work followed the publication of Mr. Longfellow’s Keramos, of which it is an illustration. In a series of panels, the artist — Mr. Karl Müller — shows the potters of all ages at work, and gives some of the more famous specimens of their skill. In their midst appears a bust of the poet in a medallion framed with laurel. Mr. Smith has also turned out a, number of very fine figures and groups in parian by his chief designer and modeler, Mr. Muller.
A great deal of excellent work in earthenware is produced by the Robertsons, of Chelsea, Mass. No more true ideas of art, and no more patient contention with the difficulties in the,way of their perfect expression, can anywhere be found. Aside from their attempt to imitate the Haviland faïence and Doulton ware, the Robertsons have succeeded in perfecting certain styles which, so far as we know, are original. Here, as everywhere else, the original work — that which expresses the artist’s own thought —is the best. There are vases from this workshop which deserve a place in every collection. The clay used is of two colors, brown and white, and is thrown in shapes that are generally elegant and always in harmony with the decoration. The latter consists of gravings in the paste, applied moldings, and carved reliefs. To illustrate the last mentioned, we may instance a vase upon which is carved a flower, or a creeping plant is twined round the body and touches the lip. The work is minute and true to the model, and the disposition of the tendrils, leaves, and flowers has all the grace and freedom of nature. Other examples might be adduced, but the above will give an additional point to what has been said of the recognition of American art.
At East Boston is the establishment of the New England Pottery Company, the only producers of white granite and cream-colored ware in the Eastern States. Portland and Beverly are both known in connection with terra cotta, of fine body and graceful shapes, chiefly after the antique.
In the city of New York a manufacturer devoting himself to art with no little zeal and enthusiasm, guided by long experience and profound practical knowledge, is Mr. James Carr, of the City Pottery. He makes use of six or seven combinations of material, from iron-stone china to American porcelain. For many years Mr. Carr confined himself to plain domestic wares; but when he with others felt the awakening of a taste for art, he turned to work of a higher order in decoration and modeling. Some of his figures, busts, and groups in bonechina, parian, and term cotta are praiseworthy, and his iron-stone china and semi-porcelain are painted in styles to which, a few years ago, American workmen were practically strangers. Both here and in Trenton, the demand for decorated services during last year showed a large advance, and promises to increase as the art improves and prejudices die away. Terra cotta of various qualities is also made in New York.
As one of the leading centres of the pottery industry, Trenton deserves more than the brief notice we can now give it. Its chief productions, apart from the fine ware or porcelain already referred to, are white granite and creamcolored ware, of which immense quantities are made. It has risen to its present eminence within the last twenty-six years. The industry was founded by Taylor & Speeler in 1852. The firm made brown and Rockingham ware, and also tried to make porcelain and parian, but without success. The ware is said to have been of good quality, but the demand was insufficient to make the venture profitable, and the difficulties in the way of manufacture were more than the enterprising members of the firm could cope with. In 1853 the production of the white ware which constitutes the staple of the Trenton trade was begun, and has now reached an annual value of about, two million dollars. The most noteworthy attempt to combine artistic work with the manufacture of white ware was made three years ago by Ott & Brewer, the present Etruria Pottery Company. Their works in parian are highly creditable, and although their art enterprise met with little encouragement, and has been for the present discontinued, it deserves special recognition among the efforts that had been and are now being made to lay the foundation of an American art. The body is fine, compact, and hard, and appears in a variety of warm and pleasing tints. One of the later specimens is a bust of Cleopatra, a careful study and an example of highly finished workmanship. It was on view in New York for some time, and according to Mr. J. Hart Brewer brought his firm into violent contact with the prevalent antagonism to American works of art. The bust was seen, admired, and priced by a New York gentleman, who appeared disposed to become the commercial Antony to the Trenton Cleopatra. He expressed his satisfaction both with the work and its value, and asked from what European studio it came. When told of its Trenton origin, he received the information at first with incredulity, and, when convinced of its truth, withdrew from the purchase. The story illustrates the operation of tlie unreasoning prejudice against the American artist. The bust, although widely differing from such an ideal as Gérôme’s, is, if less attractive, probably more truthful in the presentment of a type of beauty peculiarly Egyptian. It is to be hoped that fhe Etruria Company may be led to revive the production of works in parian. In following Copeland and Minton they have entered a field which in this country is almost entirely their Own.
It is unnecessary for the purposes of the present sketch to give further particulars of individual manufacturers, or of the nearly eight hundred factories which are scattered over the country. A subject of greater importance is the styles of decoration to which the artists of America resort, or, more generally, the manner in which their artistic feeling seeks expression. There is, in the first place, a wide-spread admiration of the graceful forms of Greece, which has led the workers in terra cotta to follow them, and to reproduce many other less attractive antique shapes. A similar tendency has for a long time manifested itself in Europe, and the wonderful success of Ipsen and Wendrich, of Copenhagen, had no doubt its influence in firing American potters with a desire to emulate the taste and skill of the ancients. At the present time the antique may be said to absorb all the attention of the American producer of terra-cotta vases. The public is rapidly becoming familiar with the chaste, simplicity and elegant freedom of outline which constitute the great charm of Greek ceramic art. It has not yet, however, occurred to any one to confer upon those admirers of the Greek who are shut out from any comprehensive collection the real benefit that would be contained in a complete set of the leading Greek forms. The educational value of such a collection would be great, as illustrating the beauty with which the Greeks were preeminently successful in investing their domestic pottery, their jars, wine-coolers, vessels for drawing the wine, and drinking-cups. In copying the Greek decoration our artists are far behind the Danes, and resort at times to styles which have nothing to recommend them. It is difficult to infuse into a copy the feeling of the original; and American modifications of the antique, and original designs based upon the antique, are almost invariably devoid of either feeling or meaning. The point for the American potter to keep in view is that the beauty of the Greek vase which can be enjoyed throughout all time is in its form. Its decoration is often rude. The drawing of many of the figures is poor, the proportions bad, the coloring arbitrary, the attitudes impossible. Should any one undertake to make exact copies of the fifty thousand Greek vases which are said to exist in different parts of the world, or of any number of specimens, he would engage in a very laudable enterprise. But to spoil American terra cotta with new designs “ after the Greek,” and marked by all the imperfections of Greek workmanship, is not art, but folly. If the Danish work be examined closely, it will be found that with the quietude of color characteristic of the ancient it unites perfection of drawing and a careful attention to all the minutiæ of detail. Whether the design be copied from an antique vase, or is after one of the classical works of Thorwaldsen, or is original with an artist whose genius, like that of the great sculptor, turns to the classical by preference, its execution gives the vase a right to be ranked with works of art. Not only in form, but in tone, it is a reflection of the same spirit that animated the old Greek artists, and deserves the study of every decorator of American terra cotta “after the antique.”
The warmth with which the Haviland faience was received led to attempts on the part of American potters to probe the supposed secret of his process and to imitate the ware. There was in reality very little mystery about Haviland’s method. Its leading points, that of painting the unbaked clay and that of using an alkaline glaze, were given to the public almost immediately after the faïence was introduced. The Robertsons of Chelsea 1 have, after a long series of experiments, succeeded in bringing out a few pieces with very beautiful grounds of blue and green. As studies in color these pieces are attractive, but they are far more deserving of attention as a groundwork for future endeavor, of the artistic results of which great expectations may be entertained. This is said in view of the patient contention with material difficulty, and of the presence of the true art instinct elsewhere manifest in the Chelsea workshop. But it may be well to consider the difficulties in the way of the Robertsons and of all other imitators of the Haviland faïence. That the latter is the greatest contribution to the ceramic art of the present day is almost universally conceded. It brought with it new ideas of the beauty of color, and of the possibilities within the reach of the artist who resorts to a clay excipient. The results of the process are in some cases wonderfully beautiful. The melting together of the glaze and colors gives the latter a liquid softness seen on no other kind of faïence, and at the same time necessitates the most patient care on the part of the artist, lest the work of a too free or careless brush should pass into an indistinct daub. The effect has been described as that of an “oil-painting on faïence,” and how true this description is may be seen from many of the pieces. The execution is invariably free and bold, and many of the designs are characterized by a most charming simplicity. The originality of method and treatment forbids description by comparison with any other faïence. Some pieces are decorated with carved, unglazed reliefs; others, with paintings of flowers, birds, dogs, or human faces or figures. Some present us with a combination of these styles. There are some on which the flowers are laid upon a ground of cloudy blue, and are seen as if held against the sky. There are others in which a parasite or flower stem is wound in high relief round the piece, finishing at the handle in a flower, a butterfly, a snake, or merely a knotted part of the stem thrown into an arch. These natural and simple suggestions are made use of with wonderfully fine effect. Whatever care and attention to minutiæ the artist may have bestowed upon his work, they never obtrude themselves upon the attention to mar the effect. One is not tempted to analyze in presence of the beauty of the general result. All seems free, easy, and natural, and the conviction is forced upon us, after examining the strained effort and painful exactness displayed by his predecessors, that Haviland has discovered the only true treatment of faïence. When the brilliant colors have made their full beauty felt, there still remains to be enjoyed the deep and suggestive background. In some instances, as, for example, in the cloudy blues and mottled grays, the ground upon which the figure or floral decoration is laid is even more fascinating than the decoration itself. So in nature the flowers and trees are no more inthralling than the freshness of the green leaves or fields, than the blue of sea and sky, than the soft, dreamy gray of mottled clouds. Some of the best French artists of the day have availed themselves of Haviland’s palette and faïence to perpetuate their art. Let it be assumed that the Robertsons have overcome all the mechanical and material difficulties; that they have mastered the process; that their glaze contains the necessary alkalies; that they have the facilities for firing at the proper temperature; that their palette equals the French in richness, and there is still before them the greatest difficulty to be surmounted, — the acquisition of the genius and skill which bring process and palette to the creation of a work of art. In paving the way to such a consummation, the Robertsons are doing noble service, and are engaged in a work a thousand fold better than the obscuring of terra cotta with crude designs in oil.
The number of skilled decorators is rapidly increasing, and much of their work — especially that from the decorating room at the Greenpoint Porcelain Works — is remarkably healthy in tone and sentiment. Designs drawn directly from nature, such as charm us in Japanese porcelain and faïence, are abundant, and indicate a mastery of the secret of the artistic success of all nations that possess a distinctive art. When the artists of Capo di Monte sought originality, they turned to the sea-shore, and found models in the corals and shells of the Mediterranean. The flowers, plants, animals, and insects of America are the inexhaustible treasury to which the artists of Greenpoint most frequently resort, and their works are therefore, in many cases, both attractive and original.
One result of our view of the present position and tendencies of American art is the assurance that, having every kind of material, enterprise, and an artistic sense which promises to assume, as it develops, forms more decidedly national, the American manufacturer and artist have liitle to fear in the future from either prejudice or foreign competition.
Jennie J. Young.
- The present article was written before the recent achievements of Miss McLaughlin in faïence at Cincinnati, and the new discovery of fine clays in Ohio. See Contributor’s Club in the Atlantic for September.↩