“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.