Innovative and enterprising ceramist and author Mary Louise McLaughlin paved the way for countless female studio potters through her impressive achievements in china painting, underglaze slip decoration, and porcelain. Born into a well-to-do family and raised in Cincinnati, she attended the Cincinnati University School of Design where she studied drawing, painting, sculpture, woodcarving, and china painting. McLaughlin was particularly adept at china painting and exhibited her work at several exhibitions in the 1870s, including Cincinnati’s Sixth Industrial Exposition, where she won a silver medal.
McLaughlin rose to fame, however, thanks to her successful recreation of the French barbotine technique she had seen at the 1876 Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia. The process involved painting with colored clay slip and was traditionally undertaken by men. Her barbotine wares were praised as being “equal to the famous faience of Limoges” and would become known as “Cincinnati Faience” and “American Limoges.” A combination of circumstances both personal and professional led her from barbotine back to china painting in the early 1880s. From the late 1870s through the 1880s McLaughlin also published several books and manuals on the subject of pottery decoration, including China Painting: A Practical Manual for the Use of Amateurs in the Decoration of Hard Porcelain (1877), the first American manual on the subject written by a woman for women.
Barbotine’s popularity waned by the mid-1880s leading her to dabble in other crafts such as woodcarving and metalworking, but by the end of the 1890s she had turned her attention to a new challenge: porcelain. McLaughlin had admired contemporary Scandinavian porcelain at the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and was likely spurred into action by Charles Fergus Binns in 1898, who suggested that she consider old French and Oriental porcelains. Never one to shy away from a challenge, McLaughlin became the first American to attempt porcelain making outside of a factory setting.
Relying on cast vessels made from molds she designed, she set up a studio at her home and a small kiln in her yard and relied on a single assistant to aid in preparing, casting, and firing the clay. Within just a couple of years, thanks to her dogged determination, prodigious talent, and continued technical advice from Binns, she had mastered the medium, creating beautiful, diverse porcelains with carved and modeled designs ranging from conventionalized to naturalistic. She drew considerable inspiration from Chinese examples, trying her hand at the “rice grain” technique (pierced porcelain filled with translucent glaze) and even attempting the infamously difficult sang-de-boeuf glaze. Her porcelain wares were named “Losanti” after the original settlement that would later become Cincinnati.
It was McLaughlin’s nature to move relatively quickly from one medium to another after having mastered it, thus she only worked on her Losanti ware until 1904 at which point she ceased production of ceramics altogether. For the remainder of her career she focused primarily on writing and published her last book, another treatise on china painting, in 1917. McLaughlin’s achievements, in both ceramics and writing, inspired future generations of American women and she remains one of the most important figures in the history of American ceramics.
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