The Art of German Stoneware

When I was a kid, German beer steins were popular with my New Jersey relatives. Even my Irish/English grandparents had a decorative stein on the mantle over the fireplace in the living room. When he was old enough to indulge, my cousin John actually drank from a stein for a period and was, as I recall, quite pleased with himself though other family members thought he looked a bit silly. All my relatives at the time lived in northern New Jersey where many residents were German (including half my family) so that might account for the fad. The beer steins in question were brightly colored in red, cream, tan and blue glazes with faux relief decoration.

Reading Jack Hinton’s The Art of German Stoneware, 1300 – 1900 from the Charles W. Nichols Collection and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, I was reminded that authentic German drinking vessels and bottles were far more interesting than the gaudy steins that so intrigued my Jersey relatives.

Hinton opens, “Robust but refined, durable yet delicate, German stonewares are practical ceramics that frequently surpass their utilitarian character through their fine construction, sparkling colors and finishes, and excellence and variety of forms and ornament. From the late sixteenth through the seventeenth century these wares were among the most common decorated ceramics found in Europe and the colonial world, and made their way into households across a broad spectrum of society.”

Germany was blessed with abundant deposits of stoneware clay. Fired to high temperatures, stoneware is durable and impervious to stains and thus very useful.

Early in the sixteenth century, potters working along the Rhine began to employ sprigs, molded decorations that they applied to the exterior surfaces of their pots. They also employed salt glaze and cobalt, lending their work a distinctive appearance.

Through all the centuries of stoneware production, vessels for drinking and decanting remained important, but stoneware was also used for storage jars and bottles, preserving foodstuffs, and, eventually for sanitary ware.

Hinton takes us on a quick run through history, focusing, of course, on the pieces in the collection. There are two very appealing unglazed jugs from the early fourteenth century, nicely thrown, one with a particularly elegant transition from the curve of the belly in and up through the neck and lip. There are bottles, pitchers and jugs with the famous “bearded man” (Bartmann) face applied to the neck. The faces were made in molds and attached to thrown vessels. They were largely made by potters in Cologne and Frechen but widely traded. One from the mid-sixteenth century, brown, salt-glazed, stands just six inches tall. Here the face and beard reach three quarters of the way down to where the belly transitions in towards the foot. And there are many examples of white/gray, and blue and white salt-glazed pieces, heavily decorated with applied seals, rondels, medallions, swags, animals, crests, and faces.

“Social developments, such as improvements in living conditions and emulation by middle classes of the customs of the elite, were an important stimulus for diversification of the forms created,” Hinton writes. “The elaborate ornamentation of stonewares also helped to shift the impression of these utilitarian wares to that of luxury ceramics worthy of display. Potters benefited from a focus on making more refined wares as a means to increase their profits.”

The photography in The Art of German Stoneware is good. I especially liked the inclusion of contemporaneous paintings, many of them Dutch, showing the stoneware in use. Reading this, I did  not long to make similar pots myself, as sometimes happen to me when I am in the midst of a book, but perhaps you will.