Scarab Vase, 1911
Adelaide Alsop Robineau
Porcelain, 16 5/8 x 6 in. diameter.
Collection Everson Museum of Art, PC 30.4.78a,b,c
In 1911, only ten years after she first began to model in clay, Adelaide Alsop Robineau was awarded grand prize for her display of 55 ceramics at the International Exhibition held in Turin, Italy. Prominent in this group of ceramics was Robineau's Scarab Vase, made the year before while she was employed at the ceramic school of the American Woman's League at University City in St. Louis. The ceramists there--among whom figured the Frenchman Taxile Doat, the celebrated ceramist from the Sevres porcelain manufactory--were encouraged to create grand, public statements in clay, the better to help publicize the fledgling, yet ambitious, educational venture that the school represented. Robineau rose to the occasion and composed the Scarab Vase, a virtuosic summary of all that could be accomplished in the exacting medium of porcelain.
Some 90 years after its making, the Scarab Vase has once again been singled out for praise. This time, Art & Antiques Magazine in its March 2000 issue feature article, "Top Treasures of the Century," has designated Robineau's masterwork the most important piece of American ceramics of the last 100 years.
The Scarab Vase is made of high-fire porcelain and was thrown on a potter's wheel. When dry, Robineau slowly cut out the background of the pot to affect an intricate design of stylized scarab beetles. This complex imagery completely covers the piece except for the areas reserved for large, carved medallions, which are situated at regular intervals at the shoulder, foot, and middle of the vase. Robineau carefully glazed the surface of the pot a glossy white with accents of pale turquoise, leaving the excised background a matte bisque. In this way she set up a jewel-like vibrancy that is based on the alternation between glazed and unglazed areas, highlight and shadow, linear surface patterning and repeated circular details. On the base of the vase, Robineau inscribed the legend "The Apotheosis of the Toiler." This alternate title refers as much to the purported thousand hours it took Robineau to complete the work's carving as it does to the excised scarab beetle, the Egyptian symbol of hard work, patience, strength and immortality.
Adelaide Alsop Robineau, born in 1865, was an unusual woman for her time — entrepreneur, publisher, artist, educator, and mother of three children. That she was practically self-taught in making ceramics is not so surprising when one considers that by 1901 — the year that Robineau first turned her hand to ceramics and, coincidentally, the year that she and her husband, Samuel, came to live and work in Syracuse — she was already a nationally-celebrated china painter and co-founder and editor of the influential magazine Keramic Studio. She was soon to add the running of a summer school and a faculty position at Syracuse University to her credentials. By the time of her death in 1929, Robineau was widely recognized as the preeminent artist-potter in America, and the first to produce porcelain objects that rivaled those from European porcelain factories in both design and execution.
The Scarab Vase and other works by Adelaide Alsop Robineau are on display at the Everson Museum of Art in the Syracuse China Center for the Study of American Ceramics.