David Rago on Kataro Shirayamadani and the Present Lot
When people think of Rookwood, and when they think of Kataro Shirayamadani, this type of modeled decoration is not usually what comes to mind. He is perhaps best known for his Japanesque-style birds, dragons, and flowers, but every artist who came to America during the art pottery period—be it Rhead or Doat or Shirayamadani—eventually saw an evolution in their work that reflected both their new country and emerging design trends. This vase, exhibited in the seminal The Arts & Crafts Movement in America exhibition at Princeton in 1972, is one such hybrid, combining Shirayamadani’s capacity to integrate organic designs in the round with the subdued colors and matte glazes typical of the Arts and Crafts movement.
In 1880, Maria Longworth Nichols Storer (1849 - 1932, pictured) founded Rookwood Pottery in Cincinnati, Ohio. A wealthy young woman, she was inspired, as so many of her contemporaries were, by the Japanese ceramics displayed at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial International Exposition. Though she had just one year of formal training in pottery and was unexperienced in business, she opened the first art pottery in the United States, naming it Rookwood after her childhood home. In 1883, she hired William Watts Taylor to manage the pottery, a position he retained until his death in 1913.
Storer, and to a greater extent Taylor, focused on the development of distinct, signature glaze lines, the first of which was the Standard Glaze line, a yellow-tinted translucent high gloss glaze over slip-painted decoration on ground colors of green, yellow and, more commonly, brown. Through the 1880s and 1890s more high gloss glaze lines were developed including Iris, Sea Green, and Aerial Blue. By the dawn of the 20th century, countless others were created, including matte glazes, which were gaining in popularity by that time. The vessels themselves were standardized shapes, and were first thrown or molded separately and then given to the decorator to be painted. In the early years they imitated Japanese forms, and though Oriental themes continued to inspire designs, a variety of subjects were explored, such as Native American portraits, sea faring vessels, landscapes, and a multitude of flora and fauna.
William Taylor played a key role in Rookwood’s success – the company would go on to become the largest art pottery in the country, employing over 200 people at its height. He sought to elevate humble pottery to the same level as fine art and increase their influence in the art world. To this end, the company hired many talented pottery decorators, who aimed for absolute perfection in the firing, avoiding crazing and glaze bubbles. Pieces that are uncrazed and have as few factory flaws as possible are especially desirable to collectors today. Among the many talented artists employed at Rookwood, some of the most celebrated are Matt Daly, Sara Sax, Carl Schmidt, Albert Valentien, Lenore Asbury, and Japanese artist Kataro Shirayamadani. All totaled, over 130 artists have been identified as having worked at Rookwood, many having distinct art careers outside of the pottery as well.
At first, the pieces were purchased mainly by Nichols’ wealthy friends, but Taylor expanded the company’s market to encompass regional, national, and international audiences. He not only advertised in nationally circulated journals and newspapers, he also made significant donations to museums, specifically to the Cincinnati Art Museum, who owned more than 2,000 pieces. Further, he ensured that Rookwood was included in regional displays as well as international expositions. Early honors included the Gold Medal at the 1889 Exposition Universelle in Paris and highest honors at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Rookwood would go on to win even more impressive levels of acclaim: Gold and Silver medals at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, Grand Prize at the International Exposition of Ceramics and Glass in St. Petersburg that same year, a Diploma of Honor at the 1902 First International Exposition of Modern Decorative Arts in Turin, and two Grand Prizes at the 1904 Louisiana International Exposition in St. Louis, where they showcased the Vellum glaze line.
The pottery enjoyed success into the 20th century. Upon Taylor’s passing in 1913, management was handed to Joseph Henry Guest, the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum at the time, and the company continued to innovate and hire new and talented artists into the 1920s. Rookwood prospered until the Great Depression took its toll and sales slowed. Rookwood pottery had been marketed and collected as high-end, luxury craft, and many who had been acquiring the pieces could no longer afford to do so. As a consequence, Rookwood closed for a year from October 1930 to 1931, and by 1932 had laid off most of the decorators. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1941, at which point it was purchased by a firm of investors. Production continued in limited quantities through the Second World War. The company passed through several more hands before it moved to Mississippi in 1960 in order to cut costs, and lingered until 1967 when it permanently closed its doors.
Gone, but not forgotten, Rookwood Pottery left behind an impressive legacy as one of the most successful, most famous, and most artistically and technically innovative American art potteries of the 19th and 20th centuries.