Women and Ceramics

Selections from the Gardiner Museum’s Collection

By Gardiner Museum

Gardiner Museum

Emperor's Garden (2007) by Betty WoodmanGardiner Museum

Women and Ceramics

The important role of women in the history of ceramics has long gone under recognized. Spanning a range of cultures throughout history, this display highlights the many ways in which female experience intersects with the medium of clay. This group of objects selected from the Gardiner Museum’s collection reveals women’s roles as recipients and users of objects; as the subject of representation in myth and stories; as active patrons and collectors; as decorators; and finally as innovative makers challenging tradition. Together, they celebrate the importance of women as subjects and agents of culture and change.

Figure of a Bijin (c.1680) by Unknown Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum

Female Ideals

Standing Female Figures (3500-2400 BCE) by Validia CultureGardiner Museum

Symbols of Fertility
Cultures around the world have used the female form to symbolize fertility. These small female figures characterized by their highly decorative hairstyles come from the Valdivia culture, located in the Guayas province along the south coast of Ecuador in the Santa Elena Peninsula. Because of their nudity, we commonly interpret them as fertility figures. Archeologists have found them in a variety of contexts ranging from burials of important individuals to waste deposits on house floors. The majority were found near hearths and food preparation areas, activities traditionally associated with women.

Dish with female portrait (c.1500-1530) by Deruta, ItalyGardiner Museum

Decorous Brides and Wives
In Renaissance Italy, a range of maiolica objects served to commemorate transformative moments in a woman’s life, including betrothal, marriage, and childbirth. This large charger with a female portrait in profile was possibly offered to a woman to mark her betrothal or recent marriage. Rather than being individualized, the portrait is instead generic and consistent with contemporary ideals of beauty and decorum by which women were advised to avert their gaze as a sign of modesty and obedience.

Figure of the Madonna with the Christ Child (c.1480-1490) by Pesaro, ItalyGardiner Museum

Motherly Devotion
After marriage, the most important event in the life of the Renaissance woman was childbirth. The enormous risks associated with pregnancy and childbirth together with the emphasis placed on family lineage gave rise to a rich material culture in which objects served to convey ideals. The Madonna and Child, the most common type of image in Christian households, functioned as the ultimate model of motherly devotion and sacrifice. This sculpture may have been displayed in a domestic chapel.

Figure of a Bijin (c.1680) by Unknown Artist, Hizen, JapanGardiner Museum

Ideals of Beauty
This female figure fashionably dressed with multiple layers of kimono depicts a bijin, or beautiful woman. In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, porcelain bijin were among the popular Japanese exports to Europe. They were also appreciated in Japan itself, particularly in the context of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints. These woodblocks depicted various aspects of the pleasure quarters then flourishing in Japanese cities, including courtesans and onnagata, male kabuki actors who played female roles.

Dish with Scene from the Story of Daphne and Apollo (c.1555-1570) by Workshop of Domenego da VeneziaGardiner Museum

Stories and Myth

Journey (2003) by Roger AksadjuakGardiner Museum

Sedna, Goddess of the Sea
Featuring Sedna riding a bear, Journey exemplifies Roger Aksadjuak’s interpretation of traditional Inuit narratives in clay. Half woman, half fish, Sedna is a central character in Inuit mythology. The details of the legend vary between regions, however, in every account a young girl is forced into the sea by her father who hacks off her fingers as she clings to his kayak. Sedna’s severed fingers then fall into the icy water and become marine creatures, while she herself is transformed into the beneficent yet vengeful goddess of the sea.

Side Dish with Scene from 'Xixiang ji' (Romance of the Western Chamber) (c.1680) by Unknown Artist, Jingdezhen, ChinaGardiner Museum

Yingying and The Romance of the Western Chamber
The Romance of the Western Chamber (the story Xixiang ji) is a romantic drama written in the thirteenth century, which became hugely popular in the late seventeenth century. Printed illustrations inspired many depictions on porcelain. The story features the daughter of a court official, Yingying, who falls in love with the poor young scholar Zhang Gong, defying parental authority and the feudal marriage system. On this saucer dish, the story's heroine, accompanied by her maid Hongnian – is caught by her mother in the garden where she visited her lover.

Dish with Scene from the Story of Daphne and Apollo (c.1555-1570) by Workshop of Domenego da VeneziaGardiner Museum

Daphne Saved from Apollo
During the Renaissance, Ovid’s Metamorphoses was an important source for maiolica painters, and the loves of the gods were often represented. However many of these narratives feature forced encounters or even rape. In this piece, Daphne, a forest nymph, rejects the god Apollo’s sexual advances in the name of chastity and virtue. Chased by Apollo, she implores her father, the river god, for his help. The dish presents the story’s climax when Apollo reaches Daphne at the very moment when she metamorphoses into a tree, her father’s answer to her plea.

Charger with Mary II (c.1690) by Unknown Artist, EnglandGardiner Museum

Patrons and Collectors

Oval Dish from the Service of Alfonso II d'Este (c.1579-1605) by Patanazzi WorkshopGardiner Museum

Margherita Gonzaga of Mantua
This plate was originally part of a service commemorating the marital alliance between Duke Alfonso II d’Este of Ferrara, and his third wife, Margherita Gonzaga of Mantua (1564-1618). When Alfonso died in 1597, Margherita left Ferrara for Mantua accompanied by no less than 50 cart-loads of possessions, including paintings, reliquaries, luxury textiles, and possibly the service to which this dish belonged. In Mantua, she founded the convent of Sant’Orsola, overseeing all aspects of its construction and withdrawing to live there. She never took religious vows, but used the convent to cultivate her own private court instead, receiving important visitors and participating in Mantua’s political life.

Charger with Mary II (c.1690) by Unknown Artist, EnglandGardiner Museum

Queen Mary II
This commemorative charger depicts Queen Mary II who ruled over England from 1689 to 1694. Mary II was among a handful of seventeenth-century female aristocratic porcelain collectors, and is known to have introduced into England the fashion for porcelain rooms which Daniel Defoe describes as “the custom… of furnishing houses with Chinaware…piling the China upon the tops of Cabinets, scritoires, and every Chymney Piece.” Her collection was sadly dispersed – the fate of most major collections assembled by women at the time – and is only known through an inventory.

Figure of a Farmer Holding a Goose (c.1780) by Royal Copenhagen ManufactoryGardiner Museum

Queen Juliane Marie of Denmark
In eighteenth-century Europe, the main porcelain manufactories were associated with courts, and queens counted among their patrons and founders. One of them was Queen Juliane Marie of Denmark. As the widow of King Frederik V, she came into power when her stepson was unable to rule due to mental illness. A strong women and modern queen, Juliane Marie supported research in the natural sciences and promoted the development of new products using local raw materials, including porcelain. The founding of the Royal Danish Porcelain Factory in 1775 was part of her plan to improve the country’s economy and living conditions. The manufactory, where this figure was made, is one of her great legacies.

Potpourri Vase (c.1750-1752) by Vincennes Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

Madame de Pompadour
Madame de Pompadour is associated with eighteenth-century porcelain perhaps more than any other woman. As King Louis XV’s royal mistress, Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson d’Étiolles held an important position in court politics and as a patron of the arts. She was one of the most prestigious and influential clients of the Vincennes/Sèvres porcelain manufactory, and is credited as the driving force behind its success. The factory’s designer, Jean-Claude Duplessis, even named some of his models after her, such as this “Pot-pourri Pompadour”, a marketing tactic aimed at sparking desire on the Paris luxury market

Recumbent Leopard (c.1750) by Meissen Porcelain ManufactoryGardiner Museum

Helen E. Gardiner
This Meissen leopard was part of Helen Gardiner’s personal collection, donated after her death in 2008. Helen Gardiner’s deep love for and knowledge of ceramics truly shaped the collection that she and her husband George donated at the founding of the Museum in 1984. The Gardiner Museum owes a great deal to Helen’s commitment and determination. She led the campaign that transformed the Museum through a major renovation project completed in 2006.

Dish with Dogwood Flower (1891) by Mary Ella DignamGardiner Museum


Milk Jug (c.1720-1725) by Meissen Porcelain Manufactory and Decorated by Sabina AufenwerthGardiner Museum

Sabina Aufenwerth
Sabina Aufenwerth was an independent decorator or Hausmaler (literally meaning “home painter”) active in her father Johann’s workshop in Augsburg, Germany. - Independent decorators were highly skilled artists who painted their designs on undecorated porcelain obtained from the factories as remainders or seconds. She decorated this milk jug in 1731 as part of a service that she offered to her husband Isaac Hosennestel as a wedding present; an appropriate gift since he owned a coffee house in addition to being a goldsmith.

Dish with Dogwood Flower (1891) by Mary Ella DignamGardiner Museum

Mary Ella Dignam
The plate decorated by Mary Ella Dignam is an early example of the practice of “china painting.” This hobby first swept across the United States in the late 1870s and then Canada, and persisted into the early twentieth century. Originally from London, Ontario, Mary Ella Dignam first trained locally under the painter Paul Peel before continuing her artistic education in New York and Paris. On her return to Canada, she settled in Toronto where she founded the Women’s Art Association in 1891, the same year that she decorated this bone china plate with dogwood flowers.

Small Jug with Sylized Flowers (1909) by Florence Helena McGillivrayGardiner Museum

Florence Helena McGillivray
Florence Helena McGillivray (1864-1938) was a highly regarded and prolific Canadian painter primarily known for her landscapes. China painting, exemplified by this small jug decorated in 1909, is a lesser-known aspect of her practice. Its gilded stylized flowers show the influence of the Arts and Crafts Movement. McGillivray was a member of the Women’s Art Association of Canada, and the decoration of ceramic blanks was popular among its members.

Lamp Base in the Art Nouveau Style (1912) by A.M. KearneyGardiner Museum

A.M. Kearney
A.M. Kearney decorated this vase, once mounted as a lamp in 1912. While nothing is known about the artist, we assume that she was a woman given the popularity of ceramic-decorating as a hobby among middle-class women in Canada’s urban centres. The undecorated blanks could be ordered by mail, and amateur artists often derived their designs from pattern books or monthly magazines aimed at porcelain painters. The decoration, composed of five cranes against a stylized branch with berry fruits, shows the impact of the Art Nouveau style.

Doctor's Bag (c.1970) by Marilyn LevineGardiner Museum


Golden Vase with Terra-Cotta Bands (c.1976) by Lucie RieGardiner Museum

Lucie Rie (1902-1995)
Lucie Rie is regarded as one of the most important ceramic artists of the twentieth century. Born and trained as a potter in Vienna, Rie fled the Nazi annexation of Austria in the late 1930s and moved to London where she worked making buttons throughout the Second World War. When the war ended, she returned to ceramics and established her own studio pottery. She brought British studio pottery into the mainstream of modern art and design and gained an international reputation with her clean forms and sophisticated surface decoration. This vase is an iconic example of her work.

Doctor's Bag (c.1970) by Marilyn LevineGardiner Museum

Marilyn Levine (1935-2005)
Marilyn Levine is one of Canada’s most celebrated ceramists. Originally from Alberta, she moved to California where she developed her signature faux-leather style. She created Doctor’s Bag for the final project of her MA at the University of California, Berkeley, continuing to make life-like leather objects – such as coats, handbags, shoes, and suitcases – throughout her career. Their well-worn surfaces, marks, and scratches endow each piece with a history and stand as metaphors for the passage of time.

Emperor's Garden (2007) by Betty WoodmanGardiner Museum

Betty Woodman (1930-2018)
Betty Woodman is a major figure in American ceramics and an artist of international renown. From the beginning of her career in the 1970s to the end of her life, she produced a distinctive body of work that explores the boundaries between ceramics, painting, and sculpture. In 2002, she began creating large-scale installations composed of glazed ceramic objects set against painted canvas backdrops. The Emperor’s Garden is an important example of this type of work, originally inspired by Korean folk painting and other Asian art forms. With its brightly coloured lotus flowers on a simplified lattice wall, this piece transports us to a sun-filled garden on a beautiful summer day.

Untitled (2003) by Magdalene OdundoGardiner Museum

Magdalene Odundo (b.1950)
Magdalene Odundo first learned the art of ceramics in her native Kenya, as well as in Nigeria, before completing her MFA at the Royal College of Art in London. She has since established herself as one of the foremost ceramists of our time. She is known for her sculptural and often anthropomorphic vessels, such as this tall vase suggestive of a pregnant woman’s belly. Odundo builds her forms using a traditional coiling technique, which she then scrapes and burnishes to produce a smooth lustrous surface. She achieves subtle black or red chromatic effects by firing the pieces in different kiln environments.

God's Eye (2012-2015) by Shary BoyleGardiner Museum

Shary Boyle (b.1972)
With a practice ranging from ceramics to live performance, Shary Boyle is one of Canada’s most influential contemporary artists. This figure of a young boy bent backwards by the weight of the moon is a metaphor for humanity’s insignificant place within an expansive universe. Boyle started working on this piece in 2012 and completed it in 2015. The work in progress served as a prototype for the development of a series of figures featured in Music for Silence, Boyle’s installation for the Canadian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale in 2013.

Collapsed Deer Head, North of North Series (2015) by Janet MacphersonGardiner Museum

Janet Macpherson (b.1974)
Canadian artist Janet Macpherson is known for her porcelain animals and fantastical creatures. Collapsed Deer Head is part of a series entitled North of North, through which Macpherson explores the idea of the “North” as part of Canadian consciousness and mythology. While intrinsic to Canadian identity, the North is in reality unknown to the majority of people. Macpherson herself defines it as a place “somewhere to the north of where I’ve been, a place I haven’t seen.” The artist’s vision of the North is therefore an abstraction filled with mysterious creatures that compel a sense of wonder. Collapsed Deer Head also speaks to the precarious existence of the animals inhabiting northern territories, with global warming an ever-looming threat.

Credits: Story

This exhibition was developed by Gardiner Museum Curator Karine Tsoumis

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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