This week the Metropolitan Museum of Art celebrated the reopening of its newly renovated and reconfigured American Wing, which is featured in two articles in the current May issue of The Magazine ANTIQUES. The results are stunning: a majestic installation of sculpture and architectural elements in the Charles Engelhard Court; the reinstallation of twelve period rooms that, with a new glass elevator, are now more accessible than ever; and the light-filled balcony displays of ceramics, glass, and silver, which are newly arranged for chronological and thematic harmony. Visitors to the American Wing will have much to discover. With that in mind, I decided to discuss a single object here, to introduce the superlative holdings of the Met’s American collections and to entice readers to find their own favorites.
One of the highlights of the American Wing is a new installation of American art pottery from the collection of Robert A. Ellison Jr.—a promised gift of 250 exceptional works that are being shown publicly for the first time. This collection, which is on view on the new mezzanine-level balcony overlooking Central Park, spans the years 1876 through 1956, and, as Alice Cooney Frelinghuysen, the Anthony W. and Lulu C. Wang Curator of Decorative Arts, pointed out on a recent tour, represents all regions of the nation. In addition to extraordinary vessels by George Ohr, the renowned potter of Biloxi, Mississippi, there are works by such notable arts and crafts potteries as Newcomb, Grueby, Rookwood, Marblehead, and the Saturday Evening Girls. One standout among the dazzling array of ceramics is an 11 ½ inch tall vase (illustrated here) designed by Frederick Hurten Rhead for the Roseville Pottery of Zanesville, Ohio, between 1905 and 1908.
The English-born Rhead came from a family steeped in the pottery industry—his grandfathers both worked at various firms including Sèvres, Spode, Mintons, and Wedgwood, and his father at Brownfields Pottery. He himself worked at Brownfields and, in 1899, became the art director for Wardle & Company before coming to the United States in 1902. His prodigious career here included stints at Vance/Avon Faience in Titltonville, Ohio, and the Weller Pottery in Zanesville, Ohio, before his appointment in 1904 as art director at Roseville. There he developed many successful lines including “Della Robbia,” which was developed in 1905 and entered production in 1906.
“Della Robbia” offered American consumers a striking new design vocabulary that incorporated strongly stylized decoration, often with sculptural definition—combining the influence of commercial English potteries such as Doulton with Rhead’s own vision for Roseville. The strong geometric design, intricate composition, and textural relief of the Met’s vase make it a striking example of the effects he achieved. Rhead actively promoted this bold type of stylized decoration by publishing his designs in Keramic Studio, the art pottery magazine founded by Adelaide Alsop Robineau.
The very modern look of the ceramics that Rhead designed in his earliest years in the United States are all the more compelling when one considers his entire career here which spanned three more decades and culminated in his most famous design—the “Fiesta” dinnerware line he developed for the Homer Laughlin China Company in 1935. Though Rhead died shortly after being diagnosed with cancer in 1942, his prolific body of work and the success of his designs are testament to the inventiveness and diversity fostered in American decorative arts.
To learn more about Rhead and American art pottery see, Frederick Hurten Rhead: An English Potter in America by Sharon Dale (Eerie Art Museum, 1986).
To learn more about the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art visit www.metmuseum.org.
Image: Vase designed by Frederick Hurten Rhead (1880-1942) for Roseville Pottery (1892-1954), Zanesville, Ohio, 1905-08. Earthenware; height 11 1/2 inches. Metropolitan Museum of Art, promised gift of Robert A. Ellison Jr.; photograph by Robert A. Ellison Jr.