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