NEW ORLEANS — At the mere mention of Newcomb College, it’s the pottery that comes to mind.
And it’s the pottery that dominates “Women, Art, & Social Change: the Newcomb Pottery Enterprise,” an exhibit at the Newcomb Art Gallery in the Woldenberg Art Center on the Tulane University campus which runs through March 9.
The show, which is being co-hosted by the Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service, has been labeled the largest presentation of Newcomb arts and crafts in more than 25 years.
“Well, we think of it as the most comprehensive exhibit of Newcomb’s arts and crafts,” says Sally Main, who curated the exhibit. “The pottery is the most recognizable, but this show introduces the public to other things the Newcomb artists were doing.”
After New Orleans, the exhibition will travel to eight other venues, says Josette Cole, registrar for the Smithsonian Institute.
Cole inspected the show’s 147 pieces, while Main watched over the installation process.
“The pieces come from our collection, collections from four different institutions, four foundations and private collections,” Main says.
The exhibit flows chronologically, beginning with a general overview in the main gallery, then segueing to the enterprise’s origins in 1895 and ending with Sadie Irvine’s effort in 1940 to keep the movement alive.
Irvine is probably the most visible of the Newcomb artists.
“She was a prolific artist,” Main says.
Her work can be found throughout the exhibit. She, along with two Newcomb professors, lobbied the college to continue the pottery project by creating more modern pieces that adhered to the project’s mission through its use of glazes. “But the public wasn’t having it,” Main says.
So ended the movement, an innovative enterprise that began as part of H. Sophie Newcomb College’s Art Department.
Newcomb College was the nation’s first coordinate college, meaning though the school operated within Tulane University, it had a separate president and faculty.
In 1886, Josephine Louise LeMonnier Newcomb donated $100,000 to establish the college in memory of her deceased teenage daughter, Harriot Sophie Newcomb. At that time, only male students attended Tulane University, and Josephine Newcomb’s idea was to provide young women with an equal opportunity for a liberal arts education.
Nine years later, the Newcomb Pottery Enterprise was developed when Ellsworth Woodward was hired to head the art department. Woodward’s goal was to find a way for women to use their art training to support themselves. Pottery was the answer.
His students could apply their art training to utilitarian pieces.
“Ellsworth Woodward wanted to create a respectable means of employment for these young women,” Main says. “Art decoration was considered respectable work for women at the time.”
In the early years, only local clays dug north of Lake Pontchartrain were used, and decoration was inspired by Louisiana flora and fauna.
Clays from other locations eventually were incorporated, but the Louisiana theme persisted in the artwork. Along with flora and fauna, insects, small animals and scenes indigenous to the state’s landscape appeared on vases, bowls, plates, pitchers, cups and lamp bases.
And in the midst of it, students were applying the same training to textiles, metalwork and printmaking.
Then came the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1900. World’s fairs provided a stage for new ideas and cutting-edge technology. They also highlighted the latest trends in fashion and art.
And the world wanted to see the pottery created at Newcomb.
“The enterprise had been in existence only five years, and Woodworth had already received a request to exhibit it at the world exposition,” Main said. “Most of the pottery had been given away or sold, so they had to backtrack to get these pieces. They were able to gather 25 pieces, and they sent them to Paris. They ended up winning a bronze metal.”
That metal hangs in this show. Its luster has dulled through the years, but the accomplishment it represents shines, because pottery contracts began pouring in from such high-end department stores as Marshall Fields in Chicago. Shops in New Orleans also put in requests for these pottery pieces, each a different work of art.
There’s so much to note here, beginning with the pottery’s obvious evolution from painterly designs and gloss finishes to the moss and moon designs carved directly into the clay and finished with a satin matte.
“But the most interesting stories are those about the artists behind the pottery,” Main says.