As American art pottery studios go, Rookwood has always been one of the more artfully-minded workshops. It also has a very interesting history.
In 1876, Cincinnati heiress and art lover Maria Longworth attended The Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia—where the ceramics presentation held particular interest for her. Alas, the American entries proved anemic; indeed, the rest of the world thought American artists in general (and ceramicists in particular) were centuries behind Europe and Asia. Maria was, however, mesmerized by the French and Japanese offerings—their sensuous shapes, wonderful glazes, and masterfully-painted underglaze decorations enchanted her. She was compelled to enter the art pottery business!
With money from her father, a Cincinnati real estate millionaire, Maria opened Rookwood pottery in 1880—naming it after the family’s estate in that city. Rookwood was the first female-owned and operated manufacturer (of any kind) in the U.S. She hired artists (designers, ceramicists, and painters), art students, and glaze technicians and encouraged them to work together to push the boundaries of ceramics production. And push-forward they did! A short nine years later, Rookwood grabbed the First Prize Gold at the 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle—which no doubt sent shockwaves through the international ceramics world!
The earliest works boast exquisite underglaze painting in the Japanese style by master painters (some of them Japanese themselves). In time, Rookwood designed pieces with sculpted bas relief decoration over which luxurious opaque glazes were applied.
As America moved into the Great Depression, art pottery vases—no matter how beautifully designed or crafted—took a back seat to more-pressing purchases and Rookwood suffered greatly. Sales remained poor throughout World War II and, after the war, cheaply-produced ceramics became more popular—especially pieces imported from lower-wage Asia and Europe. By 1967, after changing ownership several times, Rookwood was closed down. On a bright note, the Rookwood name and any remaining assets have been purchased by a group of investors and plans are being made to restore the company to its former glory.
The piece above, dated 1945, depicts a field of wild poppies under a warm, matte white glaze.
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