Object of the Week: Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s Scarab Vase

Welcome to the new Everson Museum of Art Blog! This is a space for us to share information about the Museum’s collections, exhibitions, programs, and history. Every Monday we will post an Object of the Week, highlighting a work of art currently on display at the Museum, while other posts throughout the month will discuss topics such as ongoing exhibitions, exciting events and programming, and interesting tidbits from the Everson’s past. Our first Object of the Week is Adelaide Alsop Robineau’s Scarab Vase, one of the most important works in the Everson’s collection and a favorite of Museum visitors.

Adelaide Alsop Robineau, today considered one of America’s preeminent studio potters, began her ceramics career as a china painter, painting designs on porcelain blanks produced by other craftsmen. After moving to Syracuse with her husband in 1901, Robineau started experimenting with making her own porcelain forms. She quickly became a master of the medium, known for decorative techniques that included intricate excising and carving away of clay. Robineau also developed an innovative approach to glazing her ceramics, experimenting with and perfecting a number of complex crystalline glazes in greens, blues, ivory, and gold.

In 1916, the Everson purchased thirty-two of Robineau’s porcelains, the first ceramics in the Museum’s permanent collection. This purchase set the course for the Everson’s long-term commitment to collecting ceramics, and the Museum now owns more than 100 works by Robineau. This collection, the largest concentration of her work in the world, includes early examples of Robineau’s vases, bowls, and bottles, as well as her famous Scarab Vase.

Robineau created the Scarab Vase in 1910 while working at University City Pottery in St. Louis, Missouri. Decorated with an excised design of scarab beetles, the vase is a stunning example of Robineau’s skill and believed to be her greatest masterpiece. The repeating design depicts scarab beetles in the act of pushing their eggs, encased in balls of dung, upwards in a never-ending battle against gravity. This continuous effort of the beetle reflects the theme of the vase, which Robineau named The Apotheosis of the Toiler due to the reputed one thousand hours of painstaking work required to carve the design.

To accentuate the depth and intricacy of the carving, Robineau planned to glaze only the excised design, leaving the background of the vessel raw. This necessitated a glaze that would not run when the vase was fired, unlike the glazes Robineau typically used. Inspired by the monochrome glazes used on Chinese porcelains, Robineau developed a recipe specifically for this task, which resulted in semi-opaque colors. She later referred to this glaze recipe as her Scarab Glaze. Once glazing was complete, the Scarab Vase endured two firings. After the first, several cracks had formed around its base. Undaunted, Robineau set to the meticulous work of filling each crack with finely ground porcelain, which she then glazed a second time. After an additional firing, the Scarab Vase emerged from the kiln in perfect condition, with no evidence of the original cracks.

The Scarab Vase won a grand prize at the Turin International Exposition in 1911, a major accomplishment for an American potter, and was exhibited in several locations around the world in the following years, including in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Robineau Memorial Exhibition in 1929. In 1930, the Everson purchased the vase from Robineau’s husband, along with forty-three of her other works.

The Scarab Vase is currently on view in the Museum’s lower level. After visiting this work, one of the Museum’s early ceramic acquisitions, check out the new exhibition Recent Acquisitions in Ceramics to see examples of ceramics acquired by the Museum within the last three years.

If you are interested in learning more about Adelaide Alsop Robineau and her work, visit the Museum Shop to browse our selection of books and exhibition catalogs, including Adelaide Alsop Robineau: Glory in Porcelain (1981) and Only an Artist: Adelaide Also Robineau, American Studio Potter (2006).