American art pottery was in peak demand from roughly 1876 to 1915. Sharing many of the values of the international Arts and Crafts movement—which was a response to industrialization and mass production—these ceramic artists sought a return to work by hand, dignity of labor, and unity of design. Their work, merging the fine and decorative arts, incorporated the avant-garde brushstrokes of French Impressionists, the exoticism of Asian motifs like bamboo, realistic representations of plants and flowers, and, paying homage to a proud heritage, portraits of Native American leaders.
The story of this distinctly American artistic success began with the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. Its displays of fine European and Asian ceramics led to a virtual craze for china painting. China painting, at this pivotal post-war juncture in American history, was viewed as an acceptable vocation for women, and no two women were more important to the flowering of art pottery in America than the accomplished china painters Mary Louise McLaughlin (1847–1939) and Maria Longworth Nichols (1849–1932).
McLaughlin, also an author, discovered through relentless experimentation a way to recreate the French underglaze technique that had so impressed her at the Centennial International Exhibition. Her development of this technique, along with her books, were foundational for the American industry. Nichols (later Storer), who was from a wealthy Cincinnati family, founded Rookwood Pottery (1880–1967), one of the largest and arguably the most famous of America’s art potteries. Able rivals, McLaughlin and Storer established Cincinnati as the center of the nation’s art pottery industry through their talent, business acumen, and vision.
This exhibition explores the development and evolution of American art pottery in Cincinnati. Objects in the exhibition, all drawn from the Museum’s extensive collection of American Art Pottery, represent the influence of McLaughlin, Nichols, and others as well as the styles, shapes, glazes, themes, techniques, and finishing methods that are central to the American Art Pottery story.