Like its predecessors, the St. Louis World's Fair (the Louisiana Purchase Exposition of 1904) brought together people and products from around the globe. On approximately 1,240 acres, representatives of 53 foreign governments mingled with Americans and each other, gradually broadening their world views. The fair generated hundreds of pages of descriptions and evaluations, among them a report on the state of the international ceramics industry. According to Samuel Geijsbeek, writing in 1905 in the Transactions of the American Ceramic Society (Geijsbeek was one of the Society's founders), fine ceramics, as a subclass of general ceramics, was "the most international of all" with "all the leading countries well represented." (pictured: Georges Hoentschel, Marine Life, vase, stoneware, France, c1900).
Geijsbeek, who was more concerned with the arrangement of displays and the technical properties of materials, made few aesthetic judgments. Today, his report is of value for the insight that it offers on the American perception of European art pottery: Geijsbeek, taken as an example of even well-informed Americans, showed scant understanding of the continental ceramics revolution. Under the thrall of Japanese Bizen ware, the French avant garde had begun to experiment with stoneware clays and flambé glazes in the 1880s and continued to toil in their studios, making stunning technical and aesthetic advances, until the advent of WWI. Meanwhile, Americans continued in a more modest and less experimental vein. In some notable cases, American art pottery was produced in an institutional (Marblehead) or educational (Newcomb) setting. The targeted market was an emerging class of suburban home-owners.
While Geijsbeek allowed that George Hoentschel's stoneware illustrated the possibilities of a material largely unappreciated in the United States, he described Auguste Delaherche and Alexander Bigot, among other top ceramists, as "amateurs," a puzzling designation considering that these men were celebrated in Europe as artists of the highest degree. Ten years earlier Charles Holme, the editor of The Studio (London; (Sept. 1894, vol. 3. no. 18, p. 180), had declared Delaherche the "master potter of Vaugirard." Having seen an exhibition of Delaherche's vases, jugs, chargers, and bottles at the Champs de Mars in 1889, Holme was particularly taken with their decoration, which consisted entirely of glazes. This, he argued, was evidence that the French had succeeded at last in developing pottery as an art in itself—independent of the painter-decorator. By 1904 Alexander Bigot had been a professional potter for 15 years. He made unique pieces in his Paris atelier and sold them through Siegfried Bing's emporium, Maison L'Art Nouveau. Bigot also operated a ceramics factory at Aulnay (near Mer), where he eventually employed more than 100 people. As a leading player in the field of architectural ceramics, he was commissioned to work with the greatest sculptors and architects of the time. According to Geijsbeek the 'amateurs' exhibited "some very good pieces of porcelain and stoneware, but there were also pieces which had no artistic nor technical character."
What did Geijsbeek like best? Although Germany's display was deemed superior to all others, he reserved his highest praise for the products of Denmark. Royal Copenhagen was lauded for harmonious color combinations and "correctness in design," which together gave their product "an impression of perfection." He singled out a large jardiniere with a water scene and birds in the foreground, painted by the firm's artistic director, A. [Arnold] Krog and also described a new glaze effect that resembled crocodile skin in white and blue.
After running through a long list of exhibitors from Europe, Asia, and the United States Geijsbeek concluded: "We look to expositions, as a rule, for new productions and exhibits of new processes, and we naturally ask ourselves what new features were observed in the pottery lines, from an international standpoint. The answer is that there is nothing new with the exception of the Vellum ware of the Rookwood Pottery Co., of Cincinnati. The fine exhibits of Germany, France, Denmark, Sweden and Holland, especially along the crystalline glaze line, were a treat to many of us, who were permitted to look upon these productions for the first time, but the Paris Exposition of 1900 showed us exactly the same thing. It may be possible that the technology of the successful commercial production of these effects has been more complete than before. The pieces exhibited do not give us, however, any information in that respect."
Perhaps Geijsbeek was correct in that judgment, but we must remember that his concern was technical rather than aesthetic. It is likely that art critics of the period were thrilled by the international array and recognized subtle shifts in the application of "modern" design principles. While Geijsbeek's report is disappointing from an art historical point of view, it succeeds in informing modern readers that art pottery and its potential commercial value received serious consideration in the United States in 1904.