"All handiwork is not necessarily good, but all good work is handiwork," was the motto of the man that founded the Newcomb Pottery movement, an enterprise presumably created as a correction for the idle hands of turn-of-the-century women.
Founded in 1895, the Newcomb Pottery group had a long run, producing over 70,000 works until it finally closed in 1940. A collection of the various objects created by Newcomb—ranging from pottery, embroidery, jewelry making, and metalwork—is currently on display at the Wolfsonian-FIU in "Women, Art and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise."
Colorful floral vases may not scream women's lib offhand, but it's a symptom of a time and place. Newcomb College was founded in 1886 as the women's college of New Orleans' Tulane University, teaching liberal arts to southern women of the genteel class. The offerings were limited to arts and crafts and a humanities courses, but the value of such an education blossomed in 1895, when the College began to allow woman to sell the wares the school deemed adequate.
The characteristic loveliness of Newcomb pottery is inspired by the women's geographic landscape. Newcomb women were drawn to the flora and fauna of New Orleans, at first painting brightly colored flowers and vignettes from their cotton fields. Their techniques over the years evolved, though their social situations in most instances didn't: though women gained the right to vote over the life of the enterprise, and Newcomb women sold
Newcomb Pottery raised the profiles of the women involved in the movement, and for the first time in history women were considered to be artists in their own right. The movement was widely praised by suffragette Julia Ward Howe, who visited the college during the Industrial and Cotton Centennial in New Orleans in the late 19th century, advocating for equal rights and looking to the movement as a sign of progress.
The works progressed in technique and style, beginning first with painted designs and evolving to low relief carving techniques to etch pictures of cypress trees and Spanish moss. Though Newcomb Pottery always featured images of the plant life in the South, the works responded to the Art Nouveau movement occurring in Europe at the time, incorporating organic motifs and elaborate flourishes that were decidedly progressive for the more conservative South.
The works on view at the Wolfsonian-FIU are part of a traveling exhibition organized by the Smithsonian Institution and offers a complete retrospective of the 50-year life span of Newcomb Pottery. Of particular note are the moon and moss series created during the 1920s and 1930s, which feature romantic Southern scenes and a low relief carving technique to create a 3D effect. This series became extremely popular with an elite customer base, and today can sell for upwards of $20,000.
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The final years of Newcomb Pottery showed a tendency for the abstract but continued to focus on naturalistic themes of the South, with spiral shapes and unique color pairings inspired by eddys that formed in the Mississippi River in New Orleans.
Newcomb Pottery closed in 1940 as perhaps a response to the social progress that women had made: World War II ushered in an era in which women could seek gainful employment in a variety of fields in order to contribute financially during the hardship of the war. But the artist collective turned business enterprise is surely identifiable as a marker of social change, and their works represent a significant record of the ongoing struggle for equal rights.
Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise is on view at the Wolfsonian-FIU through August 30. Visit wolfsonian.org for more information.
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