Taxile Doat: Grand Feu Master

French ceramist Taxile Doat trained at the École des Arts Décoratifs, Limoges and at the École des Beaux Arts, Paris, under the sculptor Augustin-Alexandre Dumont. He went on to work at the Manufacture Nationale de Sèvres from 1877 to 1905 in addition to starting his own private atelier at his home in 1892. Like many of his contemporaries, Doat was inspired by high-fired stoneware and porcelain from Japan. He became a master of high-temperature firing techniques, called grand feu, and wrote an influential treatise on the subject in 1905 which served as both an education and an inspiration to countless American ceramists, including Adelaide Robineau. This led Robineau and her husband to invite Doat to St. Louis, Missouri in 1909 where he was a key part of the short-lived University City pottery. He remained there until 1914 before returning to his home in Sèvres where he worked privately for the remainder of his life.

Pâte-sur-pâte plaque by Taxile Doat, Lune de Miel, 1882

Grand feu ceramics, in particular porcelain, were the most exclusive, difficult, and expensive to produce. Doat mastered the medium and became especially famous for his exceptional deployment of the pâte-sur-pâte technique in a variety of neoclassical and Art Nouveau styles. Developed at Sèvres in the 1850s, it translates to “paste on paste” and is a time-consuming process involving the application of an image to ceramic ware via countless, thin layers of liquid clay. He also became famous for his exquisite crystalline and drip glazes, and his asymmetric, naturalistic gourd forms. A towering figure in the ceramics world, Doat left behind an impressive legacy as a teacher, scholar, and a ceramist.

University City

The history of porcelain would be incomplete without mention of a short-lived yet incredibly important enterprise centered in University City, Missouri. The University City Pottery and Art Institute was the brainchild of entrepreneur and amateur potter Edward Gardner Lewis, and was but one division of his larger correspondence university called the People’s University. It had grown out of his American Woman’s League, which he’d launched in 1907 with the purpose of maintaining the integrity of the American home and providing wider opportunities for American women. Members of the league enrolled in correspondence courses and women deemed to have exceptional talent were invited to University City to study directly with the staff Lewis had assembled.

Lewis managed to attract an impressive roster of faculty, including Taxile Doat as Director of the School of Ceramic Art. Doat had already achieved international renown for his work in porcelain at Sèvres in France and arrived in the United States in 1909 with the goal of building the “most perfectly designed and equipped art potteries in the world.” Along with Doat, Lewis hired a veritable who’s-who of ceramists: Frederick Hurten Rhead, Adelaide Alsop Robineau, and Emile Diffloth, among others. Lewis and his wife, Mabel, also modeled and decorated pieces. Together, the group proved native clays were superior to the finest available in Europe and their work was awarded the Grand Prix at the 1911 International Exposition at Turin, where it was judged to be the finest porcelain in the world.

Unfortunately, the league and university were subject to the vicissitudes of Lewis’ often troubled business dealings. He filed bankruptcy in 1911, causing both the closure of the Art Institute and the American Women’s League. Rhead, Robineau, and others left the same year. The University City pottery operation was reorganized in 1912 under Doat’s leadership as the University City Porcelain Works. He remained with a small group of assistants through 1914, having been directed by Lewis to develop a line of porcelain and commercial wares that could be sold to make the enterprise self-supporting. During those last two years, Doat was able to focus on the shapes and glazes he had produced earlier in his career, primarily inspired by his knowledge of Asian porcelain, bronzes, and enamels. He was particularly fond of fruit and gourd shapes, their undulating surfaces complementing and enhancing his spectacular, complex crystalline glazes.

Lewis closed the operation in 1914 and Doat returned to France in September of that year, bringing to a close one of the most ambitious and important ceramic operations ever undertaken on American soil. The pottery produced during the short but fruitful period is considered by many to be some of the best ever created in the 20th century, and University City works can be found in prestigious public and private collections nationwide.

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