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Review by Bonnie Campbell Lilienfeld
Art for the People: Decorated Stoneware from the Weitsman Collection

John L. Scherer, photography by John Yost. Art for the People: Decorated Stoneware from the Weitsman Collection. Albany, N.Y.: New York State Museum, 2015. 296 pp.; 340 color illus., bibliography, index. $75.00.

In 1971, as an eleven-year-old growing up in western New York State, my hobbies included reading Nancy Drew mysteries, practicing my oboe, and playing kick the can. In 1980, when Adam J. Weitsman of Oswego, New York, was eleven, a chance discovery of a couple of stoneware beer bottles led him to embark on a mission to collect decorated stoneware. He began to amass an important and valuable collection while still in his teens and eventually donated his collection, valued as high as $10 million, to the New York State Museum in Albany. Adam Weitsman and I may have grown up only nine years and 110 miles apart, but it’s safe to say that his adolescence was a bit more industrious than mine.

Weitsman’s stoneware collection is the subject of a beautifully produced new catalog, Art for the People: Decorated Stoneware from the Weitsman Collection, written by John L. Scherer. As curator of decorative arts at the New York State Museum from 1967 to 2009 and now historian emeritus, Scherer is particularly well qualified to write this book. He helped acquire the collection for the museum, beginning in 1996 with Weitsman’s first donation of 100 pieces of stoneware. In an introductory statement, the museum’s director, Mark A. Schaming, credits Scherer with having spent the past two decades carefully studying each of the 221 pieces featured in the catalog.[1] Scherer began work on the book in 2006 but delayed finishing because Weitsman, who paid more than $125,000 to produce the catalog, continued donating new pieces to the museum and wanted them included in the publication.[2] It was worth the wait—if nothing else for the fabulous West Troy Pottery 4-gallon jar decorated with a marching elephant that Weitsman obtained for the museum in July 2015, just as the book was being laid out at the publishers.[3]

Art for the People is organized by location of manufacture, with a chapter devoted to each of six areas of stoneware production throughout New York State: Manhattan, Mid-Hudson Valley, Upper Hudson Valley, Central New York, South Central New York, and Western New York. Chapter 7 looks at Vermont potteries in Bennington and St. Johnsbury; the eighth chapter covers selected stoneware manufacturers in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Ontario, Canada. A final chapter examines pieces in the collection whose makers are unknown. Forty-six potteries are listed in the table of contents, and each is the subject of a short historical essay followed by color photographs, descriptions, and interpretations of their products.

Schaming notes that the book’s regional organization helps bring the Weitsman collection into focus. In fact, the stonewares found throughout this book share many attributes and would seem to transcend regionalism in a number of ways: they were formed, glazed, and fired in similar fashion; they were mostly meant to be utilitarian containers; they feature incised and cobalt decoration; farm and domestic animals were popular themes; and the development of Spencerian script in the United States about 1850 contributed to more stylized freehand decoration on wares decorated after that time.

But regionalism is important, Scherer argues, not only because makers and decorators often worked at multiple local potteries, but also because some of the finest pieces in the Weitsman collection serve as material evidence of the communities in which they were made. A key strength of Art for the People is Scherer’s attempt to tease out the ways in which the collection shines light on nineteenth-century life in America. According to the author, stoneware potters and decorators frequently depicted people, places, and events in their towns. Some designs were commissioned, such as the circa 1865 water cooler made by Leander Fenton and Frederick Hancock of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, for the Civil War general Asa Peabody Blunt and his wife, Mary (pp. 248–49), and the 1828 pitcher decorated with the “Charter Oak” of Hartford, Connecticut, made for Jonathan Montague and attributed to local potter Daniel Goodale (pp. 256–59).

Even on production pieces, however, Scherer argues that potters and decorators observed the world around them and drew inspiration from local people, animals, churches, race tracks, forts, boats, and even a cemetery. He employs contexualizing graphics—an advertisement, a cartoon, a drawing of a building, or a lithograph of a fireman—in his exploration of the relationship of the ceramic artist to everyday life in the community. An 1885 Fulper Brothers jug featuring a freehand depiction of a female acrobat was likely inspired by performances at the Flemington, New Jersey, agricultural fair (pp. 266–67), while circuses traveling through town may have played a role in the exotic animals decorating the wares of a number of makers in the collection.

Any shortcomings of Art for the People are far outweighed by its strengths. The book, and presumably the collection, do not broadly document decorated stoneware in the United States but, rather, salt-glazed stoneware of the mid-Atlantic and New England; I was surprised that the existence of southern decorated-stoneware traditions was not even acknowledged. In his desire to discover evidence of artistic inspiration, Scherer often has to resort to words that hedge his statements, such as “perhaps” and “probably.” While his admitted reliance on the work of William C. Ketchum and other ceramic historians means there is likely little new information about the potters and potteries, the focus on the social context of decoration and the pots themselves make Art for the People a valuable addition to any museum’s or stoneware collector’s library. It is the most exciting survey of American stoneware that I have seen in quite some time. I am the curator responsible for the ceramics and glass collection at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the experience of poring over this book made me eager to reexamine our stoneware collection to compare decorations and map out new research projects. It also made me very envious of the New York State Museum’s fabulous collection.

Bonnie Campbell Lilienfeld
National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

Ceramics in America 2016

Contents
  • [1]

    Somewhat inexplicably, the ca. 1798 Thomas Commeraw half-gallon jar featured on p. 39 is noted as being in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, rather than the New York State Museum, although its catalog number is similar to the rest of the pieces shown in the publication.

  • [2]

    “Art for the People: Decorated Stoneware from the Weitsman Collection | The New York State Museum,” www.nysm.nysed.gov/exhibitions/ongoing/art-people-decorated-stoneware-weitsman-collection (accessed May 31, 2016); and Paul Grondahl, “Scrap Metal Mogul Donates World-Class Art Collection to State Museum,” Times Union, www.timesunion.com/local/article/Scrap-metal-mogul-donates-world-class-art-5553066.php (accessed May 30, 2016). The money raised by the sale of the book will go to the New York State Museum’s acquisition fund, according to “Businessman Adam Weitsman’s Stoneware Collection Featured in New York State Museum Book | Lifestyles | Auburnpub.com,” http://auburnpub.com/skaneateles/lifestyles/businessman-adam-weitsman-s-stoneware-collection-featured-in-new-york/article_0187f7e2-e043-5a2c-b69e-fbf6df1b91b0.html (accessed May 30, 2016).

  • [3]

    . “Art for the People: Decorated Stoneware from Weitsman Collection,” www.antiquesandthearts.com/art-for-the-peopledecorated-stoneware-from-weitsman-collection/ (accessed May 30, 2016).