C is for Ceramics
Betcha didn’t know that!
Brookline High School
7 June 2013
Ceramics—with its brilliant colours, innovative designs, and varied forms is among the most enduring and fascinating of the decorative arts. Artistic expression has been hugely prevalent in society since the early man drew paintings on a cave wall. It is ever-present in the world, and its magical lure has impacted societies forever. Nothing ever begins a perfect form, and just as ceramics has evolved over the course of American History, so too, has America’s appreciation of it. Through the ages, ceramics has been the most enduring and important American art form due to the grand effect it has on society.
From its earliest beginnings in the seventeenth century, ceramics development in America was as diverse as the newly arrived settlers from all parts of Europe. Whether English, French or German, these settlers brought with them the techniques and tools of their craft, typical to their native homelands (Levin 13). Widely dispersed among the now emerging colonies, the potter learned to adapt his methods and materials to the conditions imposed on him by the new frontiers. Where in Europe, form and design had been hugely important, in the colonies it became an afterthought, with ceramics serving only functional purposes: brickmaking being a primary example (Ramsey 403). In times of hardship and emerging growth, the ability of potters to create beautiful work was nullified by consumers who were only interested in their own survival. Thus, as early as 1607 in Jamestown, Virginia, there was no semblance of beauty in American ceramic work.
The original works of America: Ovoid wide-mouth jars which functioned as pitchers with the addition of a loop, handle, and spout. These pitchers were in wide use in the early colonies but often to deadly effect. In order to make the porous clay watertight, it was necessary to add glaze to the inside of the piece. Especially in New England, the potters, not knowing how harmful lead was, utilized it on the insides of their pieces. The consumers, often leaving water in the pitchers for storage, contracted lead poisoning and in extreme cases, died (Levin 15). Thus Stoneware, (the most popular clay in use today) was created due to the fear of lead poisoning from unsafe glazes (Ramsey 43). The trend of function over form grew less and less obvious as the colonies became wealthier and colonists no longer had to fight for survival.
Even by the mid 1700’s, New England homes continued to display unsophisticated redware pottery deemed only for common use. There was no beauty, no forms that would serve no purpose other than adorning an otherwise bland wall. With trade beginning to boom in the colonies and their continuous expansion, a new merchant class was developed. These merchants, like the prosperous Southern plantation owners, created a demand for better-made wares. The merchants had the money to spend and as with most colonists, were influenced by the European upper class that advocated for lavish lifestyles. This increasing demand and appreciation for beauty indirectly led to a shift in balance of power away from the clergy that had previously exercised Puritan restraint over the “acquisition of luxuries” (Levin 16). With the Puritans beginning their downward spiral, there was hope for more unified colonies. Through the mid 1700s, the demand for decorative pieces increase dramatically, and thus the call for greater efficiency in the studio became heard.
During America’s industrial revolution, Ceramic piece production began to mirror that of factory and assembly line production. More pieces were produced a lot faster, however the segmentation of work divided the potter from the original designer of the piece. The designer often came up with ideas that were not physically feasible to appear on clay. This factory system led to an overall period of disarray in the industry. The speed with...
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Levin, Elaine. The History of American Ceramics: From Pipkins and Bean Pots to Contemporary Forms. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988. Print.
Matthews, Marcia. George Biddle 's Contribution to Federal Art. N.p.: n.p., n.d. JSTOR. Web. 7 June 2013.
Mcmillan, Barbara. Tea and Empathy: The Architects ' Tea Service, 1932-1933, and Its American Precedents. N.p.: n.p., n.d. JSTOR. Web. 7 June 2013.
Ramsey, L.G.G. The Complete Color Encyclopedia of Antiques. New York: Hawthorn, 1962. Print.
Smith, Graham. Notes in the History of Art. N.p.: Ars Brevis Foundation, n.d. JSTOR. Web. 7 June 2013.
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