Curator Q&A: The Art of German Stoneware
Drinking jugs and tankards, storage jars and pitchers, not to mention masterpieces of Dutch painting are some of the objects you’ll find on view in the exhibition The Art of German Stoneware. We were lucky enough to catch up with Jack Hinton (pictured below), Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, to learn some of the stories behind these interesting wares.
What exactly is stoneware? Is it stone?
It’s actually made from a special clay that when fired at a very high temperatures, becomes resistant to liquid. But its durability is like that of stone. These types of vessels became extremely important in the 1300s, and were ideal not only for drinking, but for kitchen storage as well. They are considered German, but they were actually mostly developed in various German-speaking lands across central Europe.
What are the earliest works in the show?
We begin with these utilitarian, but very handsomely potted early 14th-century examples from the abbey town of Siegburg. You’ll notice that the jug on the left is coated with a reddish-brown slip made from clay thinned with water; that’s because it was made before a ceramic that was truly impervious to liquid had been developed, and this coating helped reduce its porosity.
Even in the Middle Ages these useful wares were being traded throughout Europe. But by the Renaissance period, interest in luxury goods grew, and a more sophisticated visual language developed. The slip coatings were now purely decorative. Potters began using a lot of applied decoration—motifs based on ancient Roman art were especially popular. A lustrous sheen was also developed for these pieces in this period, created by adding dampened salt to the kilns during firing.
Who is the bearded man we keep seeing?
These are often called Bartmann, or bearded man jugs, and there are many to be found in this show. We can’t say for sure, but there’s a strong possibility that he’s symbolic of a mythical figure called the “wild man”, an uncivilized, hairy character who was thought to live in the forests of the German-speaking lands. On these vessels he could’ve served as a sort of cautionary message—drink and enjoy yourself, but don’t let it get too out of hand lest you become a wild man yourself.
What other sorts of symbols and motifs can we find?
Other cautionary motifs can be found, especially on wares of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries; cavorting peasants, lovely ladies with demons lurking in the background, sayings reminding us of the importance of temperance. You also see biblical and mythological scenes, as well as heraldic and politically-themed motifs. Here, for instance, is a very fine example of a baluster-shaped jug featuring portraits of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire.
What other objects are on view besides drinking vessels?
We have a rare example of a complete stoneware flowerpot (bottom center). There’s also an inkstand/candleholder (top center). Stoneware like this became very popular in the 18th century, perhaps inspired by the example of contemporary porcelain figurines. We also have a few genre paintings from the Dutch Golden Age that feature some of the very types of vessels we’re talking about.
Are these all works from the Museum’s collection?
About half of them are. The rest are a significant promised gift from Dr. Charles W. Nichols, a Museum Associate and member of the European Decorative Arts Committee. His acquisitions reflect an interest in early examples of the medium, unusual forms, and works with particular historical significance.
How long will the show be on view?
It’s running through August 5, in the Rubenstein Gallery (254) on the second floor of the main building. There’s also a catalog you can purchase in the Museum Store.
This exhibition is made possible by The Robert Montgomery Scott Fund for Exhibitions.
I love stoneware and I’m going to be in Philly soon! Now I just have to convince my cousin to come look at pottery with me…