The famous pottery and other artistic products of H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College Institute in New Orleans – considered a highlight of the Arts and Crafts movement in America – have in their century-long history never suffered a discernible lull in public interest, but 2013 offers a best-yet opportunity to get reacquainted. A special exhibit of the beautiful and highly collectible pottery is now open at the State Museum’s 1788 French Quarter house known as Madame John’s Legacy, where it will remain through 2013, and on Oct. 20 it will be joined in New Orleans by the opening at Tulane University of the largest all-media exhibition of Newcomb design ever staged. That joint presentation by Tulane’s Newcomb Art Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution will run through February 2014 before departing to tour major galleries and museums around the country.
Art destinations of this caliber are endlessly popular with today’s travelers, with proof of that to be found in our own backyard: Centenary College’s Meadows Museum of Art in Shreveport (with its complete collection of Jean Despujols’ 1930s landscapes and portraits of Indochina); Clementine Hunter’s African House murals at Melrose Plantation; Biloxi’s new ultramodern gallery of works by “mad potter” George Ohr; and, across the bay in Ocean Springs, Miss., the Walter Anderson Museum of Gulf Coast scenes by that Louisiana-born artist as well as the Anderson family’s beloved Shearwater Pottery (founded in 1928 by brother Peter). The brothers and Ohr, incidentally, were involved with and influenced by Newcomb stylings and philosophies.
The Arts and Crafts style, which arose in England in reaction to the replacement of hands-on artists by the mass-production of the Industrial Revolution, was soon imported by art schools in our Northeastern states and traveled to New Orleans in the luggage of two artists, William and Ellsworth Woodward, just in time for the World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition of 1884-1885. William became an instructor of fine arts and architectural drawing at Tulane, and both brothers were hired to give free public art lessons at the Cotton Exposition, after which William stayed on at Tulane and also founded the New Orleans Art Pottery Co. in the French Quarter. In 1887 Ellsworth founded the adjacent Tulane Decorative Art League while also serving as the first director of the brand-new art school of brand-new Newcomb College.
Both were gifted artists and instructors, but William’s interests leaned more to architecture. He founded the Tulane School of Architecture in 1907; actually designed the Architecture Building; spearheaded the movement to spare the Cabildo from demolition; and for many years, intently focused his oils, his famous “dry-point etchings” and his preservation efforts on the buildings of the Vieux Carré. His dry-points were collected and published as French Quarter Etchings in 1938; in 1964 his “oil crayon” architectural paintings were arranged by the Delgado Museum (today’s New Orleans Museum of Art) as a guidebook called Early Views of the Vieux Carré; and finally in 2009 came Robert Hinckley’s William Woodward: American Impressionist (distributed by University Press of Mississippi), its giant pages filled with the definitive collection of his works and with essays by eminent art historians.
The Arts and Crafts movement espoused by the brothers also released artists from the tight bonds of realism in favor of art whose goal was to capture, like visual poetry, the essence, the spirit, of its subjects. Add to that concept a palette selected by the Newcomb school from the Gulf Coast/pine-woods flora of the South (plus exclusive use of distinctive clays from specific Southern locales for the pottery), and the result was a delicious blend of beauty and utility, 45 years of Southern subjects presented in stylized patterns that presaged the era of art deco.
With such a pleasing product, the Woodwards’ original vision for the pottery and other media of Newcomb arts became obtainable: the establishment of art as one of few avenues for young women of that era to self-reliance and potentially lucrative business success.
Instruction became production when the actual Newcomb Pottery opened in 1895. Exhibit and sales efforts began in 1896, and by 1907 the pottery had achieved a nationwide sales network with offices in major U.S. cities.
PALM, PINE, CYPRESS
The State Museum’s exhibit The Palm, the Pine and the Cypress presents upward of 60 examples of the famed earthenware, but another treasure to be seen at Madame John’s Legacy (632 Dumaine St.) is Madame John’s itself. Because it was built in the simple, hip roof French colonial style in the mid-18th century and because after the first great New Orleans fire of 1788, it was immediately rebuilt in that same style (rather than the far more elaborate Spanish colonial then in vogue) and because it somehow survived the second great city fire of 1794, its value in terms of the architectural history of the city and Louisiana Territory is beyond calculation. The structure’s fictional role in “‘Tite Poulette,” a short story from George Washington Cable’s 1879 Old Creole Days, stuck, and it has borne no other name for the past century-and-a- quarter.
The display of pottery pieces, in all their variety of shapes, functions and glazes, is enhanced by century-old photographs of the casting room, the kiln and the design room – where young women deftly applied their scenes followed by the blue and green glazes – and by an actual potter’s wheel and crafting tools of the era. The pots, mugs, bowls and vases are as unique as your siblings and first cousins, despite their unmistakable “family” similarities, and you will take equal pleasure in the comparisons.
Visitors to Madame John’s exhibit should also make time for the permanent Newcomb collections at the nearby Historic New Orleans Collection (533 Royal St.), Ogden Museum of Southern Art (925 Camp St.) and New Orleans Museum of Art (City Park). There’s also much of interest to be seen at Tulane even before the October opening there: spring and summer’s special exhibits at the Newcomb Art Gallery; the works of current faculty and student artists at the Woldenberg Art Center’s Carroll Gallery; plus display areas with small groupings of Newcomb pottery and other Tulane Collection items at Gibson Hall, the Newcomb College Institute and other major buildings (maps at tulane.edu/about/visiting/uptown-campus-map.cfm).
WOMEN, ART, SOCIAL CHANGE
For Louisiana audiences, Tulane and its old Newcomb campus – birthplace of the historic Newcomb enterprise and site of the creative labors of its young artists of long ago – will itself be an integral part of the Newcomb-Smithsonian exhibit, an aspect that obviously cannot go traveling with all the wonderful art objects when the big show goes on the road. These are the buildings and grounds, after all, that were home to the artists for years at a time and were actually the source, along with inspirational Audubon Park across St. Charles Avenue, of much of the flora and landscapes captured in their works.
The gallery, constructed in 1996 as the centerpiece of the Woldenberg Art Center, houses arts of many categories but is highlighted by a 400-item collection of the famous pottery. The Woldenberg’s east and west wings are actually the thoroughly renovated gymnasium and art school of old Newcomb, and joining those wings as it skirts the Newcomb Art Gallery is a sidewise hall called Woodward Way. Along the “Way” have been installed two dazzling Tiffany stained-glass triptychs from a previous Newcomb Chapel as well as busts of school namesake H. Sophie Newcomb and philanthropist Malcolm Woldenberg. Above the busts hangs a plaque in heavy relief honoring beloved instructor Ellsworth Woodward, the plaque crafted by Angela Gregory, a Newcomb student who soon would gain international acclaim for her sculpture and, of course, local gratitude for such works as her massive bronze Bienville Monument on Decatur Street in the French Quarter; decorative details of the State Capitol; and, across the river in Port Allen, her seated figure of defeated and shell-shattered Gen./Gov. Henry Watkins Allen. With her art degree in hand, she studied in Paris under a former student of Rodin and then returned to earn a master’s in architecture at Tulane while serving as Newcomb’s first instructor of sculpture. Today, of the five exhibit rooms of the Newcomb Gallery, it is the Angela Gregory Gallery that presents the collection’s historic Newcomb pieces when they are on display.
A future second level of the Newcomb Gallery will one day allow the uninterrupted display of Newcomb pieces, but this year brings other special exhibits to the entire Newcomb Gallery until it closes in the fall for the installation of the blockbuster Newcomb-Smithsonian exhibit to follow.
Women, Art and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise will showcase more than 200 items of pottery, plus other media in the Newcomb style that till now was little-known: leaded glass, paintings, jewelry, metalwork, textiles and even bookbinding, some from the gallery’s own treasure trove and many from public and private collections across the continent.
The exhibit promises unprecedented emphasis on the identities and achievements of the individual students and also will present new findings on the economic impact of the exhibits and sales in terms of the artists, the commercial pottery and the community.
Adding to an already incredible bibliography of Newcomb- and Woodward-related titles, the exhibit’s handsome companion book (to be available at the gallery and select booksellers) will quickly become a rarity itself.
Madame John’s is open 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday and can be reached at (504) 568-6968. Newcomb Art Gallery is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Tuesday through Friday and 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday and can be reached at (504) 865-5328. The Smithsonian’s Newcomb site is sites.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibits/newcombPottery.