| By Joseph Cunningham

The Connoisseur's Eye: Grueby vases

September 28, 2009  |  Connoisseurship of the vessels produced by the Grueby Faience Company and the Grueby Pottery has been surprisingly slow to develop over the past forty years, during which time collections, exhibitions, and scholarly publications have featured them as exemplars of the American art pottery movement. As early as 1900 Keramic Studio noted that "no collection would be perfect without a piece of this ware" (while acknowledging that "seeing so many pieces together gives a sense rather of monotony"). A few specialists like Martin Eidelberg and Susan Montgomery pioneered historical information on the pottery, but curators have often admired Grueby vases from afar, reluctant to acquire significant works for museums. The recent gift to the Dallas Museum of Art of a Grueby masterwork (above) has occasioned a reassessment of the finest objects produced by the firm, providing a framework for evaluating its forms and glazes and those sublime moments when they come together perfectly.

Donated by longtime collectors and Dallas Museum supporters Dorothy and Edgar McKee, the vase displays the confidence, grace, and sophistication that mark the best examples of early American modernism. Designed by Grueby's artistic director, George Prentiss Kendrick, this handled vase form was illustrated repeatedly in period articles and the firm's advertisements and was shown at trade exhibitions around the world. There are many extant versions and examples. Why does this one stand out?

Glaze, texture, and color
A 1904 company brochure, likely developed in association with the pottery's display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in Saint Louis, described Grueby's "peculiar texture" as similar to "the smooth surface of a melon or the bloom of a leaf, avoiding the extreme brilliancy of high glazes as well as the dull monotony of the mat finish." The pottery is best known for its cucumber green glazes, and other colors are quite rare on significant pieces. The ocher color of the Dallas vase is as subtle and distinctive as any American glaze achieved during this period. Its texture is essential to the overall effect—at times pooling to reveal its own viscosity and hue, while at others stretching thin in the firing to reveal the details of the leaves.

Among ocher-colored vases, the vase with handles has no rivals for the quality of the texture, color, and firing of the glaze, but significant related models do exist, such as the vase by Wilhelmina Post above While this five-sided vase was a popular production item, here the unusual white buds immediately command attention, along with the frothy and variegated texture and glorious palette. The interaction between the ocher underglaze and an overcoat of a subtle, almost algae-like, green-tinted clear glaze that settles and pools in intentionally uneven ways yields a depth of color and a naturalism not seen on any other known example.» More

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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