Ceramic Thinking in Cincinnati

Aug 23, 2023

by Manon Gaudet   

With the support of a Decorative Arts Trust Research Grant, I was able to spend an invaluable week in Cincinnati, in the company of objects, archives, and the people who care for them. Regardless of how instrumental online resources were to the initial stages of my research on the Rookwood Pottery Company, nothing parallels the discoveries made in collaboration with generous research staff who have cultivated an intimate understanding of their collections. 

Founded in 1880 by Maria Longworth Nichols, the Rookwood Pottery Company grew to be one of the largest and most well-respected art potteries in the country. My interest is in a small collection of under-glaze slip decorated vessels painted with portraits of named Indigenous peoples (figure 1). The company’s artists painted these portraits after ethnographic photographs acquired from the Smithsonian’s Bureau of American Ethnology or from photographs taken of Sicangu Lakota Sioux who travelled to camp at the Cincinnati Zoological Garden in 1896 as a living exhibit. 

Some of these original photographs still exist in the company’s archives at the Cincinnati History Library & Archives, while the vessels themselves are scattered across museums and private collections. One of the largest private collections of these vessels is now on permanent display at the Gardner Neuroscience Institute at the University of Cincinnati. The opportunity to see these vessels in-person revealed a number of avenues for further inquiry. Displayed in a remarkable glass walled building, the vessel’s reflective glazes were shown to full effect. Indeed, competition between the visibility of the portrait and the reflectiveness of the glazes under bright lights raise questions about 19th- and early-20th-century domestic display. Seeing the vases exhibited under these conditions offered me a much greater understanding of their appearance than has been afforded by photographs captured under highly controlled lighting. 

Although the Rookwood Pottery Company suffered during the Great Depression, it continued to operate under various guises and locations before returning to Cincinnati in 2006. Visiting the original Rookwood Pottery building (figures 2 and 3), which is now vacant, allowed me to contextualize and interrogate period descriptions of the pottery’s picturesque location overlooking the city of Cincinnati and the Ohio River in the valley below. In addition to visiting the historic premises, I was able to tour the present-day pottery in downtown Cincinnati with the company’s resident historian. Together we spoke with contemporary potters who offered invaluable material insight into the remarkable skill of the company’s turn-of-the-century artists, who achieved these portraits using oxide-based clay slips whose colors did not at all approximate the final results after firing. 

At the Cincinnati Art Museum I was lucky enough to examine the Decorative Arts collection with curator Amy Dehan. We discussed why the pottery painted these portrait vases to begin with and also how the Rookwood Pottery Company fits within the larger history of 19th-century Arts and Crafts movements in Cincinnati. In the museum’s library, among other discoveries, I gained insight into early exchanges made between the Women’s Art Museum Association of Cincinnati and the Smithsonian. In order to acquire a collection of Indigenous pottery for the museum, The Women’s Art Museum Association traded a number of Rookwood Pottery vases with the Smithsonian. 

Finally, at the Cincinnati History Library & Archives I was able to find answers to questions about the vessel’s clay compositions by looking at the notebooks where the pottery’s in-house chemist Karl Lagnenbeck recorded experiments with clay bodies.

In addition to finding answers to questions I already had, I left with more avenues of inquiry to pursue. To leave with both new information and new questions is the sign of a great research trip, and I am grateful for the Trust’s support. 

Manon Gaudet is a PhD candidate at Yale University and was the 2022-2023 Terra Foundation in American Art Predoctoral Fellow at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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Formerly known as the "blog,” the Bulletin features new research and scholarship, travelogues, book reviews, and museum and gallery exhibitions. The Bulletin complements The Magazine of the Decorative Arts Trust, our biannual members publication.


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