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The Silver Lining

January 28, 2002

Arthur Nead
Michael DeMocker

"It's going back to Newcomb!" declared the auctioneer, banging his gavel to signal the sale of a monumental silver pitcher. The cavernous warehouse erupted with cheers and applause. Another priceless piece of Newcomb's artistic heritage had been secured for the college's art collection, and more were to follow.

By the end of the auction, Newcomb had acquired numerous items of hollowware, flatware and jewelry created by Rosalie Roos Wiener, a hitherto uncelebrated artist from the early days of the Newcomb Art School. The extraordinary auction, staged far from the oak-shaded Newcomb campus, took place this past summer in Kenner, La., a suburb best known to travelers and to many of the area's citizens as the location of Louis Armstrong International, the metropolitan New Orleans airport.

One building in the quiet neighborhood of shotgun bungalows and warehouses bordering the airport seethed with activity--the Quonset hut-style depot housing Hampshire House Auctions Ltd., run by brothers John and Jerry Rosato (A&S '74). The auction contained items from the estate of Corinne Wiener, a reclusive New Orleanian who had recently died and whose heirs had found a treasure-trove of items in her Uptown New Orleans home. Many of the items had been made by her mother, an early-century Newcomb Art School student named Rosalie Roos Wiener.

As soon as word began filtering out about the quality and quantity of items found in the home, the auction became an Event. "It was a two-day sale, on a Saturday and a Sunday, and we had over 500 people each day," says Jerry Rosato. "The auction was packed, and it was raining solidly that day. There was standing room only in this place, from the time it started to the time it ended, which was unbelievable. There were even people on phones with bids."

Attending the auction was a team of art experts from Tulane: professor emerita of art Jessie Poesch, Newcomb Art Gallery director Erik Neil and senior curator Sally Main. They were intent on bidding for and winning some of the key works by Rosalie Roos Wiener that were being auctioned. "We first heard about the auction by word of mouth. I was told there was a lot of metalwork," says Poesch, an expert on American art. "We've seen mailboxes, trivets, bracelets, bookends and necklace chains, but we hadn't seen much of the hollowware or flatware. So when we went out to see it, it was quite astounding."

The pottery, made by Newcomb artists from the end of the 19th century until 1940, is well-known and always attracts the attention of collectors and museums. The most valued pottery from Newcomb are high-glaze pieces in the Arts and Crafts style from the years before 1910 incorporating stylized local plant and animal motifs. Some later designs, such as a pale moon framed by live oak tree branches draped in Spanish moss, evoke a nostalgic romanticism. 

In sharp contrast, Newcomb silverwork of the same period is not well-known. The crowd at the auction was lured by the Newcomb items being offered for sale, but even more by the unique nature of the collection. Never before had so much verified Newcomb silver been offered at auction. "When was the last time a piece of Newcomb silver came on the market?" asks Rosato. "I couldn't tell you, and I've been in this business 31 years."

News of the auction created instant interest at Newcomb. "We have a good collection--I'm not saying we couldn't improve it--of pottery," says Neil. "There were several interesting pottery items in the auction, especially a tall iris vase that was really beautiful, but we focused on the silver. Acquiring the silver is a great improvement to our collection."

Key to the team's efforts to buy some the pieces at auction were the donations made to Newcomb expressly for that purpose. Neil credited Tatine Frater, Newcomb College's development officer, with successfully mobilizing alumni and other interested parties quickly, and making sure that funds were available in time for the auction. "A lot of people connected with Tulane were really interested in this dramatic situation," says Main. "We were gratified by the amount of support we received in that short time."

With a full war chest in hand, Poesch, Main and Neil formulated their plan for the auction. They made advance visits to the auction house and took photographs, which they consulted at strategy sessions. They reviewed their options exhaustively to "attempt to maximize the benefits that the funds could confer, and also not lose out on any 'must-have' items," says Neil. The auction contained many Newcomb-related items.

There were etchings by Ellsworth Woodward, there were oil paintings and watercolor studies and design drawings by Wiener, and there was Newcomb pottery. Confronted with this array of choices, the Newcomb group decided that "given the resources we had at hand, and our collection, we felt we would have to go for the metalwork," says Neil. "At the auction, the best quality was the metalwork," echoes Poesch. "Rosalie Roos Wiener was a metalworker, so there was lots of metalwork and relatively few pieces of the pottery. And since we have a good collection of the pottery--though we're always happy to have more--it seemed to us the thing to do was focus on the metalwork."

"Erik came to Jessie Poesch and me to find out what pieces were absolutely the cream of the crop," says Main. "He asked, 'Of all the pieces that are here, what is on your wish list, and why? Is this the best example of Rosalie Roos Wiener's work? Could this pass the test of time?' "

The Newcomb team bid successfully for numerous silver items by Wiener, including the massive pitcher, a chalice, a goblet, a child's porridger, a fingerbowl with a plate and two sets of flatware. They also bought a metalworker's workbench and a large assortment of tools and instruments used by her. "This was an unusual experience for me as director," Neil says. "We aren't often able to compete at auctions for the really impressive pieces."

The House at Trianon Place

The silver pieces and the numerous other Newcomb-related items first came to light following the death of Rosalie Roos Wiener's daughter, Corinne. After the death in 1946 of Rosalie Wiener's husband, Col. A.L. Wiener, who worked for Schenley Distillery Corp., Rosalie continued to live in her large house on Trianon Place in Uptown New Orleans. Her only daughter, Corinne, lived with her mother, never marrying. Rosalie Wiener died in 1983, and Corinne continued living in the house until her death. The two were reclusive, shunning most personal human contact, according to Corinne Wiener's cousin, Gene Roos, a retired federal employee.

"We talked to their neighbors," says Roos. "When there was a new baby, they would come by the door and have a present, but they would refuse to go into the house. And they never let anyone in their own house. "I didn't see them too much," says Roos of the pair. "The only time I saw them was when they were downtown together. They would go downtown and meet each other at the Roosevelt Hotel every day, pretending they were sisters from out of town. "You could tell them from a mile away. They were dressed alike and had their hair dyed alike--sometimes red, sometimes black," says Roos.

After the death of her mother, Corinne Wiener's reclusiveness increased even more. "If you asked her a personal question, she would turn around and walk away from you," says Roos. She lived alone in the big house on Trianon Place until she died. It appeared that Corinne Wiener had left no will. Her known relatives commissioned Gene Roos to go into the house and search for one. When Roos entered, he found an astonishing accumulation of old newspapers, clothing and trash.
"A lot of the rooms were locked up," says Roos. "There was nothing in them but clothes. A lot of the clothes had the original tags still on them. There were stacks of shoes still in their boxes. I think that once the mother died, the daughter's only social contact was to go and buy something, and talk to the salesperson. "In one room," said Roos, "after cleaning out the room for five hours using a professional cleaning company, we found a grand piano under the clothes."

The search made it plain that the house contained many valuable items of antique furniture and decorative bric-a-brac. A bank box, in particular, contained a large trove of silver pieces, including a large water pitcher, a set of goblets, a covered vessel, and other items. Roos, as estate administrator, contacted Jerry and John Rosato to appraise and auction the contents of the house.

In the course of inventorying the salable objects in the house, Roos and the Rosato brothers uncovered numerous pieces of Newcomb pottery, paintings, drawings, and reams of documentary materials and letters relating to the Newcomb Art School.
The attic of the house yielded Rosalie Wiener's jeweler's workbench and her collection of fine metalworker's tools. It also contained footlockers and trunks containing clothes that had belonged to A.L. Wiener. Perhaps most important, the searchers found newspaper clippings from the mid-1930s that established firmly that Rosalie Wiener had been a Newcomb artist. Photographs in the clippings pictured Wiener with some of the same pieces found in the bank box, including the massive water pitcher.

One clipping from the Dec. 8, 1935, Item showed her with some of her wares. The caption reads: "Rosalie R. Wiener, a craftsman of Newcomb, has studied and practiced art for 12 years." "When we found these clippings," says Roos, "We knew the significance of what we were dealing with. Before that, we didn't."

The Newcomb Art School

From 1895 until 1940 the Newcomb Art School sponsored a quasi-commercial business called the Newcomb Pottery. It was instituted by the school's faculty, notably Ellsworth Woodward, a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who had been on the faculty of Tulane University as an art instructor since its founding in 1884. Another faculty member involved in setting up the enterprise was Mary Sheerer, who trained in the decoration of ceramics at the Art Academy of Cincinnati .

She was brought in to teach at the school in 1894. The pottery remained under the art school's guidance and tutelage throughout its years of operation. It had been founded as a model enterprise based on the ideals of the Arts and Crafts movement, which particularly emphasized the aesthetic and technical superiority of hand-made artifacts to those made by machine.

The Arts and Crafts movement originated in Great Britain as a reaction against the results of the Industrial Revolution and its aftermath, in the course of which many kinds of hand manufacture had been replaced by industrialized production. Influential writers on the arts such as William Morris and John Ruskin extolled the beauty and wholesomeness of decorative and useful objects created by traditionally trained craftsmen, and castigated as ugly and soulless the products of mass industry.

The Newcomb Pottery's founders intended it to be a place where such beautiful and useful items were made by inspired, dedicated craft workers, all of whom were to be women. The dreary economic conditions of the South in the decades following the Civil War and the rising tide of the Women's Movement combined to make alternate career opportunities available for women a great desirability.

One of the Newcomb Pottery's main goals as a model enterprise was to demonstrate one way that young ladies could be provided with a genteel mode of employment. Women who had been art students at the college and displayed sufficient talent were invited to continue to work at the school, not on further coursework but in a professional capacity, producing art works for sale. Consistent with the linguistic habits of the era, these professionals were called "craftsmen."

All the art works that they produced for sale were judged by a panel of faculty to ensure they met the standards of excellence set by the pottery. The craftsmen received commissions on their items that were sold. The main product was, of course, pottery. It was produced in great quantities and was a big seller for decades both in the Newcomb Art School showroom and at department stores and arts and crafts outlets around the country. As set up by the faculty, women artisans were to decorate the pottery. This included applying decorative glazes and often carving or incising the surface of the pots.

There was always a male professional potter on the staff to do what was considered the heavier, more hazardous duties of throwing the pottery bodies and firing the decorated pieces. Of note was Joseph Meyer, who worked at the pottery for many years. Later ceramists on the staff were Paul Cox and Kenneth Smith. The craftsmen made a variety of other popular products, including weavings, embroidery, bookbindings and metalwork. They also made a wide variety of metalwork objects. Items included bookends, trivets, bookmarks, platters and pierced metal lampshades for lamps with pottery bases.

Rosalie Roos Wiener was an art student and crafts worker at Newcomb from 1923 at least until the late 1930s. Like all Newcomb art students, she took basic classes in drawing, painting and design. Wiener was one of the select who went on to become a "craftsman," producing items for sale and earning a commission on her work. Wiener apparently found her niche primarily as a metalworker, becoming a master silverworker in the process. She was not limited to silverworking, however, also producing decorative metalwork and jewelry using copper, brass, tin and gold.

"Rosalie Wiener was part of a whole group," says Poesch. "The metalwork began as early as 1903, but really started to blossom after 1913 and particularly after 1916." Metalwork was introduced into the Newcomb Art School's curriculum around 1909 by Mary Butler Williams, a 1901 graduate of the school who was hired as an assistant professor of drawing and design. "She started out as a designer, but she was apparently very bright. She did some studying of metalwork, probably in Chicago," says Poesch. Williams rose in the ranks of teaching, and had a number of students. "She was such an important teacher that when she died, college halted for a day," says Poesch.

Among the pupils she taught who went on to become Newcomb metalworkers were Juanita Mauras, Miriam Levy, Carmen Favrot and Rosalie Roos Wiener. In the 1920s and '30s the metalwork became very important for the Newcomb enterprise, according to Poesch. Trends in decorative style had begun to move away from the use of motifs derived from local flora and fauna, and toward the international "moderne" style. At Newcomb this trend was embraced earliest by the metalworkers, who exhibited their products at expositions, museums and galleries in Boston, Chicago and New York.

"So, relatively speaking, the metalwork was more sophisticated and, in that sense, more up-to-date, if you will," says Poesch. "They were very attuned to what was going on internationally." Newcomb's pottery also eventually acknowledged the new style. "The 'espaneol' design pottery dates from the same era as the silver. It has an art deco feel--it's more architectonic or geometric," says Neil. Rosalie Roos Wiener's silverwork is elegantly geometric and deceptively simple in appearance.

Probably characteristic of the work habits taught to all Newcomb art students was the very great care she lavished on each piece. For example, Wiener carefully planned the applied decoration around the lip of a goblet by means of a precise drawing, which was acquired by the Newcomb team along with the goblet. The metalworkers earned commissions on their wares, some of which were sold at the art school building. "The metalworkers had a display room with showcases," says Poesch.

But a lot of their output was the result of individual commissions. Pottery can be made in quantity in advance of selling it. The metalworkers apparently did not attempt to create a sizable sales inventory of silver and jewelry pieces, because these incorporated very costly materials. "They seem to have done things either for exhibits or on commission," Poesch says. "Apparently, people brought in their silver or gemstones. They melted down the silver and made entirely new pieces out of it.

"They drew wonderful, precise, delicate little drawings of potential jewelry designs. They put the designs in folders, and someone could look at the designs and say 'I'd like a ring like that.' So far as I can make out, these were sales devices." Special Collections of Tulane's Howard-Tilton Memorial Library has a number of these drawings, gifts of the families of Carmen Favrot and Miriam Levy. A lot of the work of the Newcomb metalworkers, and there is likely a lot of it, may never be identified.

The makers of the pottery are identified by a set of standardized markings. Unlike the pottery, many of the metalwork pieces made on commission were not signed or marked by the makers, says Poesch. "There was a more personal relation between the patron and the metalworker than for the pottery, which was made for going to a craft shop or sales room in some other city," says Poesch.

End of an Era

By 1940, the Newcomb Pottery had been shut down, ending a period of extraordinary artistic vision. The faculty members who were the leading lights of the pottery were retired or had died by that time, and changes in taste had led to decreased demand for the pottery's products. In addition, more opportunities for women to earn a living had gradually opened up, rendering one of the main reasons for the pottery obsolete.

The silverwork, jewelry, drawings and metalworking bench and tools that belonged to Rosalie Roos Wiener have been placed on display in the Newcomb Art Gallery at the Woldenberg Art Center of Newcomb College. The display includes exquisite examples of metalwork donated by the families of Carmen Favrot, Juanita Mauras and Miriam Levy. "A part of our mission is to preserve the legacy of the arts at Newcomb and at Tulane," says Neil. "This was a unique opportunity. This collection could have gone out of the city, out of the region. I'm happy that we could preserve some of it."

Arthur Nead is an editor in the Office of University Publications and editor of Tulanian's Alumline.


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