René Binet, Vase de Bizerte (1900)
Adelaide Alsop Robineau, Viking Ship Vase (1905)
Comparing these vases by Binet and Robineau, one instantly notices two upright, richly-decorated works in clay with earthy, matte glazes and low-relief pictorial applications, but the immediate visual similarities defy significant differences in each artist’s inspiration and discipline. Divergent backgrounds contribute to each specimen, representing a significant shift in decorative ceramics at the dawn of the 20th century.
René Binet (French, 1866-1911) designed his piece, Vase de Bizerte (stoneware, at the Musée d’Orsay, Paris) for the French state ceramics manufacturer, Sèvres, to showcase national decorative arts at the Exposition Universelle de Paris of 1900. Standing large at nearly thirty-nine inches tall, a central flume is flanked by flaring “wings” that extend the structure to a considerable width of twenty inches. Bizerte (named for the oldest city in Tunisia, under French control at the time) is less a decorative vase than a sculpture, like a Doric column set against a wall of whiplash vines and highly-stylized flowers that conjure an Orientalist interpretation of North African botanical tiles. The presence of structural design elements in this Sèvres piece are not coincidental: René Binet’s primary mastery of architecture was on full display as an extravagant highlight of the Exposition with the Porte Monumental (pictured below), a massive colorful gateway entrance to the exhibition grounds at the Place de la Concorde that greeted attendees with lacy, audacious arches flanked by towering columns—the composition evoking further Orientalist exoticism with its resemblance to Moorish mosques and minarets:
The grandiose, imperial statement attesting to France’s colonial reach across North Africa is presented here like a celebratory birthday cake of stylized surface “icings” projected on a large-scale edifice. Similarly, Binet creates an extravagant structure in his Vase de Bizerte with a backdrop upholding lavish figurine flowers, the abstract styling of his plants appearing more architectural than asymmetrical botanical renderings common in Nancy School Art Nouveau pieces.
Adelaide Alsop Robineau (American, 1865-1929) began her career in pottery as a painter on pre-made figures and vessels—a field within ceramics that was considered acceptable for women if somewhat limiting to individual artistic expression. Robineau began her career teaching in Minnesota but French influence would soon find her in two ways: her marriage to French-born ceramics collector Samuel Robineau; and her initiative into making vessels of her own following a seismic shift in the pottery field following the Paris Exposition of 1900, where one attendant china-painter reported that
“[I]n the estimation of an artist-potter, one is not a keramist who has no knowledge of clay bodies and glazes, and who cannot design, mould, and fire his ware as well as decorate it. As the jury at Paris considered the exhibits from this standpoint, overglaze work on ware not made by the decorator did not rank high.” (Marshal Fry)
Painting on blank pre-mades was henceforth ignored as a ceramic art discipline of any stature.
Robineau soon took up throwing clay on a wheel. In contrast with the slip-cast mass-manufacturing of Sèvres and other large commercial enterprises (including American companies like Grueby and Rookwood), Robineau stepped out of the “feminine” arena of production-line China painting and into a pioneering role of a woman potter in a small studio setting. In this realm, Robineau excelled and expanded her artistic endeavors to include new style motifs and glaze experiments, the latter being heavily influenced—as was much of the wares of the burgeoning Art Pottery movement—by ceramics from the Far East. Mottled surfaces, blurred color fields, and deep matte hues bestow a hand-crafted appearance to the diminutive Viking Ship Vase (porcelain, collection of the Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, N.Y.). Following an article she published in 1905 concerning a ceramic manufacturer in Denmark, Robineau seemingly “borrowed” a historic Danish motif here, rendering low-relief Viking ships for narrative surface design. The umber-colored masts and bodies seem to float among the seafoam-colored cobalt and chrome glazes, hues that glow from the fine (and problematic, as far as clay throwing is concerned) light porcelain clay body beneath. This one-of-a-kind specimen is a testament to Robineau’s meticulous discipline and attention to detail. Her pieces would gain fame not for mass production and wide availability but for carefully-rendered craft, her artistic hand fastidiously applied to each piece.
While produced merely five years apart, these vases provide an art-historic narrative of contrasts in several key respects: execution (Binet’s large-scale mass-production as opposed to Robineau’s small-scale handcrafted piece), discipline (Binet’s background in architecture and Robineau’s fine art painting), audience (Binet’s industrialists against Robineau’s progressive bourgeoisie), and style (Binet’s bold Art Nouveau and Orientalist designs versus Robineau’s soft and simple narrative forms with Japanese-inspired glazes). Nevertheless, both Binet and Robineau succesfully constructed exalted beaux-arts masterpieces from the humble handicraft clay medium.