The H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College, Tulane University’s women’s coordinate college, established the Newcomb Pottery in New Orleans, Louisiana, 25 years before women had the right to vote. From the beginning it was thought of as a combination social experiment/educational/commercial venture offering women the possibility of supporting themselves as artists during and after their training. From its inception in 1895, the experiment was wildly successful. Young Southern white women enthusiastically signed on for a rigorous program of classes teaching jewelry making, textile design and china decoration. In part, the school operated as a factory, paying wages to the students and selling their wares. The work garnered acclaim from Louis Comfort Tiffany; the abolitionist and feminist Julia Ward Howe; art curators and collectors. It was written about in art journals. Newcomb products were sold in shops from Boston to Los Angeles. The pottery had its own store, and at its peak was so popular that the potters and designers had difficulty meeting the demand.
Newcomb, one of the most significant American art potteries of the early 20th century, was short-lived; it was shuttered in 1940. Its significance lies in the fact that it produced so many highly skilled and deeply original women artists. It’s also remarkable for the interest it has sustained for the nearly 80 years since its closing. The work made there has only grown in value and still shows up in garage sales, on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow, and at auctions, garnering sales in the tens of thousands of dollars.
Newcomb was at the confluence of several social currents; the craze for china painting, the influences of the Arts and Crafts movement and Art Nouveau, first-wave feminism and the still rare presence of women in universities. Newcomb’s faculty incorporated the philosophy of the English Arts and Crafts movement into the curriculum, particularly its emphasis on handcrafted, individually designed objects. Two of the faculty, Ellsworth Woodward (quoted in the title of this article) and Mary Given Sheerer, determined Newcomb’s course. Woodward, hired to develop Newcomb’s program of art education, envisioned a program of vocational training for young women artists. Sheerer, hired to teach pottery and china decoration, became a dedicated leader. Under the influence of the Arts and Crafts movement, the students produced work that expressed a strong regional sensibility laden with Southern motifs.
During its years in operation, Newcomb employed nearly 90 graduates and produced about 70,000 distinct objects. The pottery was awarded 8 medals from international exhibitions before 1916. The enterprise was contradictory; men threw the pots, loaded and fired the kilns, and mixed the glazes. The decorators and designers were exclusively women. Joseph Meyer (1848–1931) threw about 60% of Newcomb pottery, executing many of the forms from students’ designs. One of the notable comments about Newcomb stated that the women painted the pottery with a “delicacy that only young ladies can do.” Quality was maintained through submission to a jury headed by Mary Sheerer. All pieces were nominally functional but the lamp-bases, candle-holders, plates, and vases were generally used decoratively.
Over the span of Newcomb’s 40 years, the work evolved with the fashions of the times; at the beginning the fired ware was less colorful, as time went on the work became more vivid and many of the designs were incised. Although the imagery always revolved around local flora, the women responded strongly to Art Nouveau and expressed that influence through elegant lines, biomorphic forms, and the use of metallic lusters. Newcomb pottery is distinguished by a system of marks on the ware. The initials NC (Newcomb College) were always stamped on the bottom; other marks indicate who threw the pot, who decorated it and what clay was used.
Three of the program’s graduates are particularly known for their work. Aside from being in the Newcomb Art Museum at Tulane University, many other institutions have their work in their collections. Sadie Irvine (1887–1970), best known of the Newcomb decorators and designers, has been called the cornerstone of the pottery program. Irvine joined Newcomb College in 1903 at age 15 and started receiving a salary for her work in 1920. She remained as an instructor until 1952. Irvine is best known for incorporating local plants into her patterns. She would paint and draw directly onto the clay, also incising and modeling in low relief. Woodward, who was the founder of Newcomb College, in addition to being a faculty member, wrote, “she took on a form of immortality—she was incapable of making a mistake in design!” Of her own work, she ironically stated: “Our beautiful, moss-draped oak trees appealed to the buying public but nothing is less suited to the tall graceful vases—no way to convey the true character of the tree. And oh, how boring it was to use the same motif over and over though each one was a fresh drawing . . . .”
Harriet Joor (1875–1965) came to New Orleans when her father became a physician and botanist at Tulane University. Joor was versatile as well as talented; her studies centered around the study of languages, literature, history, and the sciences as well as the art curriculum. She graduated in 1897 and is listed among the first nine members of the class in pottery decoration in 1895. She later wrote of her memories of her time at Newcomb: “We were so like a little family . . . the few of us working at our tables with Mr. Meyer thumping out the vases at the wheel besides us, and the big round kilns looming up in the other corner of the room with the slashed glazing table beside it.” After her graduation, she taught at the University of Chicago, homesteaded on the Dakota Plains, and taught disabled men after the war. After that, she spent 15 years teaching art at the Academy of the Sacred Heart.
Marie de Hoa LeBlanc, 1874–1954, is listed in the Newcomb catalog as an artist and Craftsman from 1909–14. LeBlanc was one of the most colorful and prolific of the early Newcomb designers. Born into an old Creole family, LeBlanc first attended Newcomb College at age 20. Of all the Newcomb potters, she was awarded the greatest number of prizes. She was the New Orleans’ delegate to the International Art Congress in Dresden, was awarded the Louisiana Purchase Exposition bronze medal in 1904 and received a gold medal from the Art Association of New Orleans in 1914. Sheerer wrote of her, “Her work was characterized from the beginning by care and thoughtfulness. . . .and by her continued studies of nature.” LeBlanc made yearly trips to study art, often to Europe or Asia. In between trips, LeBlanc worked as a Newcomb Pottery craftsperson as a painter. She also taught in New Orleans public, private, and vocational schools.
After 1940, Newcomb was incorporated into Tulane University’s School of Fine Arts. In July 2015, the Newcomb Art Gallery officially became the Newcomb Art Museum of Tulane University. An extensive touring exhibition, “Women, Art, and Social Change: The Newcomb Pottery Enterprise,” was organized in 2013 by the Newcomb Art Gallery at Tulane University and the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The exhibition travelled from 2014 through 2016 to nine institutions including Princeton University and the Wolfsonian.
Author’s note: I am grateful for the help I received from the Newcomb Museum and the Smithsonian Institution.
the author Kay Whitney is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles, California.