0230 GMT February 22, 2019
When the young United States finally made its mark on the international art scene, it was women who were in many ways responsible.
That's the message the Morse Museum of American Art hopes to spread in its exhibition 'Earth Into Art: The Flowering of American Art Pottery'.
"It's important to bring the history of 'women's arts' into mainstream art history," said Laurence J. Ruggerio, director of the Winter Park museum, orlandosentinel.com wrote.
American Art pottery captured the world's attention toward the end of the 19th century, with peak demand between 1876 and 1915. "Pottery was America's first artistic success on world stage," said Catherine Hinman, the Morse's director of public affairs and publications.
And there was a reason rooted in history — and gender-related restrictions — why women were at the forefront of the movement.
"It was right after the Civil War, so many women were widowed," said Jennifer Perry Thalheimer, who curated the exhibit. Although their options for earning a living were limited by societal convention, "it was acceptable for women to paint china and raise a little money to help their circumstances. It gave women some control."
Women who didn't need extra funds still found painting china an enjoyable hobby. And for some, it grew into an artistic vocation. They employed the avant-garde style of French Impressionism, the exoticism of Asian motifs and the realism of botanical studies as the merged the fine arts and decorative arts into plates, mugs, vases and more.
"They weren't just something to use," Thalheimer said. "The idea was you surround yourself with beauty because it’s elevating."
The items also helped a young nation, still reeling from the Civil War, forge an identity.
Representations of westward expansion, the natural beauty of the country and tributes to Native Americans graced the pottery: "We were looking at what is unique about America," Thalheimer said.
It was a celebration of America's birthday that kicked the art-pottery movement into high gear. At the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia, fine French and Asian ceramics were on display.
Impressed by a French glazing technique, Mary Louise McLaughlan experimented and experimented until she figured out its secret. Meanwhile, Maria Longworth Nichols was also struck by the art form, eventually founding Rookwood Pottery, which would become arguably the nation's best-known art pottery.
As the two elevated the art form, they also put another American twist on it: Their pieces were affordable. While Britain created beautiful art pottery, most of it was financially out of the reach of average people. Not so in the United States.
"That was one of the Americans' strengths," Thalheimer said.
Over time, schools developed in which the newest Americans found self-sufficiency through the art form.
"It was about setting immigrant women up with something they could do," Thalhemier said. "It was about educating them, but also giving them a trade."
Using more than 100 objects to tell the story of American art pottery, the Morse exhibit details shapes, glazes, techniques and themes that brought the art form — and its practitioners — such prominence.
"You think it was the 1970s when women really started to take command of themselves, but these women lived in the 1870s," Thalheimer said. "It's really women who found their strength through this."
* Matthew J. Palm is the Orlando Sentinel's arts writer and theater critic.