The Rookwood Pottery Company
'While my principal object is my own gratification, I hope to make the pottery pay expenses' -- from these personal aspirations, Maria Longworth Nichols, founder of The Rookwood Pottery Company, became one of the undisputed leaders of the American art pottery movement. Her firm is recognized today as one of the pre-eminent potteries associated with the Aesthetic and Arts and Crafts movements of the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
The daughter of a wealthy real estate developer, Nichols spent much of her leisure time participating in china painting classes, attending art exhibitions and devouring period European art journals and Japanese wood block prints and sketches. While many of her contemporaries sought to develop the Arts and Crafts movement in Cincinnati by introducing the idealistic reforms and teachings of John Ruskin and William Morris, Maria chose to use her hands and technical skills to internalize this new emphasis on craftsmanship, the use of natural materials, and the integrated interior. She, along with several other classmates, were asked to submit examples of ceramic wares to the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876. Each exhibit featured a fine array of English and French pottery as well as Japanese decorative arts. The Exposition not only generated widespread interest but it triggered an ideological change that altered the way nineteenth century America viewed art. Maria Longworth Nichols was deeply inspired by the Exposition and vowed to pursue a career in art pottery.
Frustrated and disappointed with the working conditions and inconsistent production quality at the Dallas Pottery, Maria decided to start her own company. She opened the Rookwood Pottery Company in 1880 and the first kiln was drawn on Thanksgiving Day. Profoundly intrigued by both the grotesque and whimsical motifs depicted in "Manga", a Japanese multi-volume book of prints and drawings by the artist Katsushika Hokusai, Nichols decorated the earliest pieces with ferocious dragons (lot 420), atmospheric full moons and flying bats (lots 416,417), aquatic life featuring crabs, prawns, frogs and ducks (lots 407,410,413), and spiders (lot 406). Other highly talented decorators to join her included Albert R. Valentien, Fanny Auckland, Matthew A. Daly, Edward Diers, Laura A. Fry, Martin Retting, Sara Sax, Carl Schmidt, and Kitaro Shirayamadani. By 1883 one of the firm's greatest technical innovations was discovered by Laura Fry, who realized that when colored slips were applied to a moist clay body using an atomizer, the depth of the background color could be controlled more efficiently. This enabled the artist to unify the appearance of the object and thus create a more intense composition. Rookwood would become known for its achievements in the creation of sophisticated glazes ranging from their early Limoges technique of under-slip decoration, to their popular Standard glaze line of autumnal and rustic shades covered with a yellow-tinted high gloss finish, to their highly successful Cameo, Iris, Sea Green, Ariel Blue and Vellum lines, to the accidental and extremely rare Aventurine, Tiger Eye and French Red glazes.
Under Maria's leadership, Rookwood was awarded its first gold medal in 1889 at the Paris Exposition Universalle. The pottery was invited to exhibit in the Palace of Fine Arts at the Chicago World's Columbian Exposition (1893), where it earned several prizes. Numerous awards followed at a host of landmark international events, and the firm enjoyed successes throughout its sixty year history. Nichols noted, "The question of financial success, although looked down upon from artistic heights, has to be considered gravely when one desires to establish a solid foundation for a permanent industry. One of the pathetic things in the pursuit of beauty in art is that it is so hard to get a living by it. The Rookwood Pottery has been a fortunate exception."