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

This 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 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 32 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 43 of her other works.

The Scarab Vase is on view in the Everson Museum’s lower level.

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

The Everson Museum of Art is located at the intersection of Harrison and State Streets,
in the heart of downtown Syracuse, NY.