One of the most important companies in the history of American Art Pottery, Rookwood Pottery was founded in Cincinnati, Ohio by Maria Longworth Nichols in 1880. Known for its pioneering glazes and the artistry of its decorators, Rookwood gained international recognition early in its history and became the largest Art Pottery in the country, which continues to operate today.
Maria Longworth Nichols Storer
Born into a prominent landowning family in Cincinnati, Maria Longworth Nichols (later Storer), like many artistic women in the late 19th century, worked as a china painter in the 1870s primarily decorating porcelain with overglaze decoration.
Perhaps no event was more important to the establishment of Rookwood Pottery - or Art Pottery in America at large - than the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Pennsylvania. Nichols displayed her work at the fair, but more importantly took in inspiration from the displays of ceramics from Europe and Asia in addition to the varied cultural and botanical exhibitions.
After the fair, Nichols spent several years working and experimenting out of the kilns at Frederick Dallas Hamilton Road Pottery in Cincinnati, where she crossed paths with M. Louise McLaughlin, another trailblazing ceramicist who, after similarly finding inspiration in the decorative arts on display at the World's Fair, developed a new technique in 1877-78 to mimic the underglaze slip decoration displayed in the booths of companies Haviland & Co. and Limoges. Fired at a lower temperature, McLaughlin's method allowed for a wider variety of decorative effects and colorful glazes to be achieved than in traditional overglaze decoration. Underglaze decoration was adopted by Nichols and many local ceramicists seeking to expand their artistic vision and, owing to its popularity in the region, came to be known as "Cincinnati Limoges."
On Thanksgiving Day of 1880, with new techniques under her belt and financial assistance from her father, Nichols established Rookwood Pottery, named after her family estate atop the historic hilltop of Mt. Adams in Cincinnati. The company began to produce artistic pottery decorated with delicately rendered botanical motifs of native flora and fauna in the "Barbotine Ware" style popularized by McLaughlin and the World's Fair.
A quintessentially American firm, Rookwood Pottery mainly utilized clay from the nearby Ohio River Valley in the early years of production which lent their wares a distinct yellow-orange hue owing to the rich mineral deposits in the region. The luminous tones of the early glaze developed by Rookwood, which became known as the Standard Glaze, only deepend the warmth of the tones of the underglaze decoration.
Greater command of materials and further experimentation led to new formulas for clay bodies in addition to the development of a series of innovative glazes - including Iris and Sea Green in 1894, and Vellum in 1904 - earning the company worldwide recognition and setting American Art Pottery on the world stage.
Rookwood first won a Gold Medal at the Paris Exposition in 1889, an event which surprised many in the decorative arts community at the time who did not think of American artists and companies as being at the forefront of the Art Pottery movement. Rookwood continued to improve on their work, earning the highest award possible at the World's Columbian exposition in Chicago in 1893. Rookwood won the coveted Grand Prix at the 1900 Exposition Universelle in Paris for a spectacular Black Iris vase decorated by Kataro Shirayamadani, in addition to another Gold medal at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901. The winning streak continued with an additional two Grand Prizes at the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, including one for the newly introduced Vellum glaze.
In 1925, Rookwood Pottery produced a film Uncommon Clay which gave a brief intro to American ceramics and depicted the inner workings of the Rookwood complex.
Learn more about the innovative developments at Rookwood in our feature:
A SELECTION OF ROOKWOOD'S ARTISTS
Rookwood's was known for the relative artistic freedom afforded to its decorators and designers. Though the company relied on a dedicated core of artists trained at the nearby Cicinnati Art Academy, Rookwood also attracted talented individuals from further afield - including Japanese artist Kataro Shirayamadani, whose stylistic influence was specifically sought by Nichols.
Matthew Daly trained at the Cincinnati School of Design and was one of the first artists hired by Nichols. His early work for Rookwood showed a mastery of depicting portraits in the Standard Glaze. He left Rookwood in 1903.
Edward "Ed" Diers was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, training at the Industrial Art School and the Cincinnati Art Academy. He worked for Rookwood Pottery for several decades, specializing in scenes of the nearby Ohio River valley and the American West primarily in the Vellum glaze; his work is widely recognized today.
Edward Thomas Hurley, another Ohio native, worked at Rookwood for over 50 years, joining the firm in 1896 shortly after graduating from the Art Academy of Cincinnati where he studied under American artist Frank Duveneck. Hurley specialized in landscapes and natural scenery; his work for Rookwood won the company a Gold Medal at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
Fred Rothenbusch was a nephew of Albert Valentien, one of Rookwood’s first and most influential artists. Rothenbusch decorated both vases and plaques, often depicting hazy landscapes in the Scenic Vellum glaze. He was employed by Rookwood for over thirty years from 1896 to 1931.
Sara Sax was one of a handful of women decorating ceramics at Rookwood. Hired in 1896 and working at the company for over three decades before departing in 1931, she is known for her sensitive botanical depictions and a rare line of peacock feather vases. She was skilled in working in nearly all of the glazes produced by Rookwood, and her work his highly sought after by today's collectors.
Carl Schmidt was a German born artist who emigrated to the United States. Schmidt worked primarily in the Vellum and Iris glazes, specializing in marine and harbor scenes.
Kataro Shirayamadani was a talented Japanese artist brought on by Maria Longworth Nichols in 1887. Long inspired by Japanese Art and Design she had seen at the 1876 Centennial Exposition, Nichols wanted to bring an authentic Japanese style to the wares produced by her company. Shirayamadani had been working in Boston as a china painter, and had no prior experience with underglaze decoration. He went on to become one of the most important decorators working at the company.
Albert Valentien was one of the first two artists at Rookwood, hired alongside Matthew Daly. Valentien became the chief decorator at the company, specializing in botanical motifs. He was instrumental to Rookwood's success and taught many of the artists who came after him at the firm.
John D. Wareham worked primarily in the Matte Glazes and in Architectural Faience. After three decades working as an artist, he became President of Rookwood in 1934.