David Rago on the Rarity of Robineau and the Present Lot

Adelaide Robineau was said to have made only about six hundred pieces during her career, including small glaze test vases and other relatively minor works, making this large, heavily worked bowl exceedingly rare. Porcelain was notoriously temperamental and firing issues were all too common when it was subjected to the intense heat of relatively crude kilns. Poor firings would often destroy months of work and her husband even lamented at one point that anyone who did cone nine porcelains must be insane. This elaborate bowl probably took her the better part of a month to painstakingly carve with dental tools and sewing needles, and is the best example of her work we’ve had the privilege of handling.

Master of Her Craft

Adelaide Robineau's Exquisite Porcelains

The design of this centerpiece was inspired by the frogs and lily pads in Robineau's lily pond at Four Winds, the studio next to her home, and it remained in her personal collection before she gifted it to one of her favorite students at Syracuse University, where she taught from 1920 to 1929. It descended through the family until it was sold at Christie's in 1989. According to family lore, this bowl was slated to be purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art for their permanent collection, but Robineau ended up declining the offer because of imperfections caused in the firing. 

Adelaide Robineau's house and pottery studio, Four Winds, c. 1910

Despite its flaws, it is a tour-de-force on par with earlier works such as her Chinese-inspired lantern (1908) or Mayan bowl (1917). In the final years of her career, Robineau's style tended to be more abstract than naturalistic, but this centerpiece features carefully carved, life-like frogs and has more in common with her 1908 moose and cicada vases than her later, more stylized works. She was a notoriously diligent and determined craftswoman, having spent upwards of 1,000 hours carving her 1910 masterpiece, Scarab Vase (alternately, and appropriately, titled The Apotheosis of the Toiler), which won a grand prize at the Turin International Exposition in 1911. The present lot exhibits many of the same hallmarks, from deft carving to a superb balance of form and decoration, perfected over more than a decade and a half of patient and continuous experimentation.

By 1926, Robineau was an internationally renowned ceramist, revered and admired by everyone from Charles Binns and Taxile Doat to her students. This centerpiece, created just a few years before her death, is yet another enduring reminder of her inimitable talent, ambition, and legacy.

Adelaide Robineau working on the Scarab Vase, c. 1910

In all her work there is persistent power...The early imaginative delineation developed into a glorious sense of ornament, forceful and vigorous, which rarely betrayed her. The elements were so incorporated that the resultant design is at all times an ordered embodiment of essentials, with a transpiring and insistent beauty.

Carlton Atherton, Robineau's last student assistant

Adelaide Robineau 1865–1929

“A Robineau vase is a true work of art, unique in conception and perfect in execution, for every piece that left this studio was a labor of love.” – Ethel Brand Wise, The American Magazine of Art, 1929

Adelaide Alsop Robineau was a pioneer in American studio ceramics and excelled as an innovator in pottery both technically and aesthetically. As a young woman of high society in the late Victorian era, she gained early accolades as a skilled watercolorist and china painter and taught for a time at St. Mary’s Hall in Minnesota. In 1899, she married Samuel E. Robineau, a French gentleman and collector of Chinese ceramics. He was deeply intrigued by her talent and steadfastly supported and encouraged her throughout her career. The couple collaborated to produce a popular and influential monthly journal together, Keramic Studio, and went on to build a studio on their property in Syracuse, New York, which they named Four Winds. Robineau would also go on to teach for many years at Syracuse University while creating her own work and raising three children.

Early in her career, she studied at Alfred University under Charles Binns, who is widely considered to be the progenitor of contemporary studio ceramics in America. His program established a shift in the craft of ceramics as an academic pursuit, rather than one of apprenticeship. Pottery throwers and the artists who decorated the wares traditionally inhabited separate roles in ceramic manufacture, a practice common in Europe. Binns’ philosophy merged the two, such that the potter had total agency of the final product. This marked a historic divergence in the creation of art pottery – one that Adelaide Robineau fully embraced. Indeed, she became one of the first ceramists, and one of the first women, to throw her own pots.

Robineau was greatly inspired by the work and writings of Taxile Doat of Sèvres, France. As she began experimenting with clays and the high temperature method known as Grand Feu, she went from working in stoneware to porcelain. Porcelain is a notoriously technically difficult enterprise for even the simplest of pieces, and she added further complexity to the process by intricately carving many of her works, making them even more difficult to fire. The porcelain-making process was so volatile, in fact, that many of her pieces would burst in the kiln. Ever the tireless and determined innovator, she experimented with and invented many new glazes. She was, in fact, the first American ceramist to apply colored glazes to porcelain.

The period between 1909 and 1911 marks an important time in Robineau’s career when she made some of her most exceptional work. Joining other influential potters of the time such as Taxile Doat, Frederick H. Rhead, and Emile Diffloth, she was part of an impressive roster of artists working and teaching at the University City Pottery and Art Institute in Missouri. During this time, she produced what is widely considered her life’s masterpiece, the Scarab Vase – a veritable White Whale of early American ceramics – which was purchased from her husband in 1930 by the Everson Museum of Art in Syracuse, New York. This seventeen-inch tall, intricately carved magnum opus, complete with a stand and lid, took her 1,000 hours to carve, leading her to dub it The Apotheosis of the Toiler. It won her the esteemed Grand Prize in Ceramics at the 1911 International Exposition in Turin, Italy.

Robineau would go on to win several highly sought-after prizes throughout her career, and she garnered almost unanimous praise from critics, collectors, and admirers alike. At the 1915 Panama Pacific International Exposition, Helen Keller handled some of her pieces, and she was reported to have said of one with a wisteria motif: “Seven times fired in the furnace and not found wanting.” Her work was the first of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s purchases when it began collecting American contemporary ceramics in 1922. In 1928, the year before her passing, several of her creations were represented in their International Exhibition of Ceramic Art and in 1929, after her death, she became the first ceramist honored with a retrospective exhibition there.

An artist of many firsts, Adelaide Robineau, through her passion, perseverance, and insight, left an indelible mark in the world of American ceramics. Widely recognized as a leader in her field, she left a celebrated legacy and continues to inspire collectors and potters worldwide.

Auction Results Adelaide Robineau