"Of the South, For the South, and By the South"
Ellsworth Woodward, Newcomb College, and the Southern Arts & Crafts Movement
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Ellsworth Woodward would become one of the most dynamic and important forces in the Newcomb College Pottery enterprise and Southern art education. He and his older brother, William, trained as artists, a decision inspired by their visit to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. Ellsworth attended the Rhode Island School of Design from 1878 to 1880 and then studied briefly in Munich with Samuel G. Richards in the early 1880s.
In 1885, at the age of 24, he and his brother joined the art faculty of Tulane University in New Orleans. Ellsworth remained in the south for the rest of his life and was active in many local and regional organizations, including the New Orleans Art Association, the Arts and Crafts Club of New Orleans, and the Southern States Art League, of which he was president from 1921 until 1939. A charismatic and passionate proponent of his adopted region's artistic capabilities, he explained the league's purpose to the local press: "The movement is not centralized in any city or around any group of artists: it is of the South, for the South and by the South, and its ultimate aim is to form in the South an appreciation of what the South can and will create in the fine arts."
Most germane to the present lot was Ellsworth’s appointment as professor of art at Sophie Newcomb College in 1887 and then, in 1890, as director of the art school, a position he would hold for the next forty-one years. His importance to the Newcomb College Pottery, along with the Art School’s female faculty and exceptionally talented students, cannot be understated. Under his leadership, women were taught applied arts including pottery, book design, silversmithing, jewelry, and textiles with a focus on the Arts and Crafts ideal of beautiful, hand-made objects suitable for everyday use.
This vase is not rare just because of its early date, made just a few years after the start of the Newcomb College Pottery, but because it is one of two known examples decorated by Woodward...
This vase is not rare just because of its early date, made just a few years after the start of the Newcomb College Pottery, but because it is one of two known examples decorated by Woodward, the other being in Newcomb Art Museum's collection. As an artist, he was, and still is, known for his paintings and watercolors. Additionally, the vast majority of Newcomb pottery was decorated with flora or fauna, with a specific emphasis on Southern species.
The present work, however, depicts a bacchanalian frieze on a two-handled, Grecian form. As Sierra Polisar, Collections Manager of the Newcomb Art Museum, notes, it may have been inspired by a Greek vase in the collection. The vase depicts a Bacchus celebration and was donated to Tulane in 1901, but could have been in their possession earlier as a loan, which was commonplace for Tulane around the turn of the century. Woodward's vase is executed in blue underglaze on buff clay, typical in the simpler palette of the earliest Newcomb output; as time went on and they were able to raise more funds, hire more staff, and increase production, the color scheme evolved as did the standardization and stylization of designs. Given the rarity of Woodward ceramics and the scandalous subject matter, one can deduce that this vase was likely a private commission or gift for a friend.
Decorated by an influential figure of the Southern Arts and Crafts movement during the formative years of of one of the most prominent American potteries of the 19th-20th centuries, this rediscovered gem, which has remained in a private collection since it was acquired in New Orleans in the 1970s, is not just an important piece of Newcomb College Pottery’s history and development, but that of American art pottery as a whole.