Clay was the perfect medium for the Art Nouveau aesthetic. Its malleable organic nature let turn-of-the-century artisans shape it into the sinewy lines, feminine curves, and scrolling vines so characteristic of the emerging movement. The introduction of new glazing techniques added luscious bright contrasting colors, which also appealed to Art Nouveau sensibilities.
Like the Arts and Crafts movement which developed in England, Art Nouveau was borne out of a rejection of mass-produced objects in stuffy Victorian styles. While Arts and Crafts embraced handmade simplicity, Art Nouveau was more about discarding rigid design rules and creating beautiful, asymmetrical, and sensual objects, so that utilitarian craft pieces were as gorgeous as works of fine art.
These new movements inspired major china and dinnerware manufacturers around Europe and the United States to open boutique art pottery studios, where gifted artists and chemists were often given free range to experiment, throw pots by hand, and test glazing techniques. For this reason, Art Nouveau is responsible for myriad innovations in the pottery craft, and Art Nouveau ceramics can be identified and classified by which new techniques were used.
For example, some studios focused on their glazes and firing techniques, striving to achieve the perfect color, opacity, and texture. In particular, the firing process often led to unpredictable outcomes, such as uneven color, veins, or blisters—such “imperfections” gave each piece a unique character. Often the pots were plain in shape, blank canvases to adorn with beautiful colors, textures, and painted imagery. French Art Nouveau craftsmen developed two-tone marbelized and crystalline effects, as well as the deep flambé red known as sang-de-boeuf and metallic glazes in rich colors like blue, yellow, orange, and purple.
Other ceramists put their energy into creating unique shapes for their pots, making fluid-looking vases inspired by Japanese ceramics, some even shaped like flowers or foliage. Three-dimensional relief effects were achieved by sculpting damp clay into flower blooms, plant stalks, animals, or maidens. Handles were shaped like scrolls, branches, leaves, or even seductively arching women. The rim of the vase might be manipulated into the shapes of leaves or flower buds.
Finally, Art Nouveau pottery produced by major factories, as opposed to individual artists, tended to emphasize surface decoration over experimental glazes. These pieces were adorned with imagery inspired by Viennese Secessionists and Jugendstil artists as well as Japanese art, including blooming plants, exotic birds like peacocks, and the hugely popular femme-fleur, or flower woman.
Slip, or colored liquid clay, was often used to decorate Art Nouveau pots. Minton in particular favored “tube-lining” in which slip is squeezed onto a vase in thin lines, in much...
In France, the top luxury commercial pottery Sèvres paved the way for new glazing techniques when Joseph-Théodore Deck took the helm in 1883. Shapes were inspired by the female body as well as Chinese architecture and ancient Turkish, Persian, and Far Eastern pottery. Vases were usually painted in subtle pastel colors. Deck’s followers include Félix Bracquemond, Ernest Chaplet, Clément Massier, Pierre-Adrien Dalpayrat, and Taxile Doat.
One distinguishing feature of certain Sèvres Art Nouveau vases is the gilt-bronze mount, also called a plinth, which usually complements the theme of the pot. A vase painted with Monet-esque lily pads, for example, might have golden frogs hugging its base.
Clément Massier, who owned a family pottery, also tinkered with glazes, developing a line of iridescent and luster glazes in earthy, somber tones that gave his earthenware the look of glass. His company collaborated with Symbolist painter Lucien Levy Dhurmer, who decorated Massier vases in Art Nouveau styles. Colors were vibrant, taken from red flowers, green grass, and turquoise seas. Clément’s second cousin, Jean Baptiste brought a particularly sculptural quality to the family’s pots, which often featured the slender and graceful shape of American dancer Loïe Fuller.
In the Netherlands, the Rozenburg factory contributed major innovations in the shapes of Art Nouveau pottery. There, in 1899, Jurriaan Kok and M.N. Engelden introduced the remarkable “eggshell porcelain,” actually an extremely thin and lightweight earthenware, strengthened by glazing on the inside and out. This fine and delicate ceramic featured intricate and lovely images of flowers, insects, and birds painted by Samuel Schellink and R. Sterken.
Before that, architect, potter, and textile designer Theodoor Colenbrander left Rozenburg to form his own Gouda Ceramic Factory. He found the Art Nouveau style particularly suited to his tastes, as he favored bold colors and shapes inspired by Javanese batik ware.
Major German potteries like Meissen and Königliche Prozellan Manufaktur (K.P.M.) capitalized on the popularity of Art Nouveau and began adopting these decorative painting styles on their vases. Staatlich Porzellan Manufaktur in Meissen even contracted with designers like Herny van de Velde and Peter Behrens to help give their pieces a more current appeal. Goldscheider in Austria and Royal Dux in Czechoslovakia both specialized in sculptural figurines, particularly nude or partially nude women.
Some of the most sought after Bohemian Art Nouveau pottery was made by the Reissner, Stellmacher & Kessel (R.S.K.) company. It dubbed its most ambitious line Amphora. This pottery was characterized by exotic and organic shapes, with incised or relief-molded decorations of flowering and fruiting plants, painted in bright surface enamel. Handles were shaped like branches and featured extreme curves.
The painted decorations on Amphora pottery, inspired by Jugendstil, often highlighted the daydreaming, pale face of a woman, surrounded by tendrils of long hair and a gilt halo. These Amphora stylings were so popular, R.S.K. applied them to wall masks, sculptural figures, and earthenware pots adorned with glass cabochons.
Another innovative Bohemian company, Zsolnay, made breakthroughs in lustrous and iridescent glazes. Owner Vilmos Zsolnay brought in the most talented foreign artisans and scientists to formulate recipes and designs, including gifted chemist Vincse Wartha, who helped Zsolnay introduce a wide line of marbled, shaded, and crystalline glazes. The most popular of these was the iridescent glaze known as “eosin.” Zsolnay pottery is characterized by simple nature-inspired reliefs like trees set against lustrous red skies.
In England, ceramist William Moorcroft made great use of the tube-lining technique for his popular line of Florian ware Art Nouveau pottery, outlining his imagery, inspired by Etruscan, classical Roman, and Far-Eastern ceramics, with thin pipes of colored slips. Designer Christopher Dresser also employed tube-lining for his work at the Minton Art Pottery studio, where Minton & Co. would provide artists blank vases to paint. Company artistic director Leon Solon worked with John Wadsworth on a popular series of “Secessionist” inspired pieces for Minton.
Major salt-glaze pottery Doulton & Co., known as Royal Doulton after 1901, opened a studio in south London in 1871 to produce a hand-crafted, hand-decorated Art Nouveau style pottery. Thanks to its proximity to, and relationship with, the Lambeth School of Art, the studio had a talented pool of artists and designers to draw from, including Frank Butler, Hannah Barlow, George Tinworth, and Emily Edwards. These artists were able to chose the shape and decoration of the vases they produced. Their pots were usually simple in form and adorned with flora or fauna patterns.
One of these Lambeth artists, Robert Wallace Martin, went on to build a small and inventive salt glaze stoneware pottery with his three brothers. The Martin Brothers were known for their imagery of leering, cringing, and inquisitive birds, smiling people, and creepy goblins. Their grotesque asymmetrical decor might include fish, owls, frogs, armadillos, salamanders, or mythical beasts in mottled and muted glazes. Other top British Art Nouveau potters include Charles H. Brannan and William de Morgan.
In the United States, Rookwood, one of the largest ceramics manufacturers in the country, didn’t embrace the handcrafted philosophy of the Art Nouveau movement, but it was eager to adapt the popular aesthetic. The company hired top technicians to come up with innovative glaze recipes and decorative techniques. The first breakthrough was made by famed artist Laura Fry who invented air-brushed backgrounds. Its most successful Art Nouveau lines include the floral “Iris Glaze” pieces and the blurry-looking “Vellum Glaze” items.
Louis Comfort Tiffany also made pottery, but unlike his Art Nouveau art glass and stained-glass lamps, this is one arena in which he was not a success. He never covered his Favrile pottery with painted images; he wanted the shape and the glazes to speak for themselves. In fact, he worked to develop glaze recipes that would echo the sophistication of his Favrile glass. His later pieces feature relief-molded imagery such as cattails, flower clusters, or fish swimming in a stream. While the pieces were molded and mass-produced, it is said Tiffany personally threw the first vessel for every item in the line.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is Newcomb Pottery, which was part of H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College in New Orleans. Newcomb pieces were hand-thrown and hand-painted by the all-female students, who attended the college to develop their labor skills. Now an adjunct of Tulane, the school produced pots by highly talented instructors and designers like Sadie Irvine, Henrietta Bailey, Harriet Joor, and Anna Frances Simpson. Pieces made between 1898 and 1910 are the most collectible. Other Art Nouveau era potteries of note in the U.S include Van Briggle, Weller, and Clifton, which produced four highly collectible lines of ware—Crystal Patina, Robin’s-Egg Blue, Tirrube, and Indian—between 1905 and 1908.
Perhaps the most remarkable American potter of this period is George Ohr, a Biloxi, Mississippi, artist, who made shockingly modern and brightly colored pots with paper-thin walls that turn, twist, and ripple in stunning organic shapes. Ohr dug the clay himself, formulated his glazes, and even built his pottery and kiln. From start to finish, his 10,000-some “mud babies” were the work of his own hand. Toward the end of his career, he chose to forgo glazes, letting his strange bisque shapes speak for themselves.
William Grueby also created a distinct American line of Art Nouveau pottery when he open his Grueby Faience Co. in Boston with the goal of pursuing “organic naturalism.” His firm invented fine vegetal matte glazes, and when its pots were shaped, colored, and fired, they came out looking remarkably like they were made of broad, living leaves and gourds. While the pots were usually green, Grueby also employed its high-quality matte glazes in myriad colors to make beautiful ceramic tiles.