The Artist & His Design
The cosmopolitan Viktor Schreckengost was a perfect choice for this special commission. Schreckengost (1906- 2008), born in Sebring, Ohio, had studied ceramics at the Cleveland Institute of Art in the late 1920s. He then spent a year in Vienna, where he was introduced to cutting-edge ideas in European art and design. When Schreckengost returned to the United States, he took a part-time teaching position at his alma mater, the Cleveland Institute of Art, and spent the balance of his time as a designer at Cowan Pottery.
A jazz musician as well as an artist, Schreckengost had firsthand knowledge of New York, where he frequented jazz clubs during his visits. Schreckengost felt that the excitement and energy of jazz best represented the spirit of New York—and he wanted to capture this in visual form on the bowl. Schreckengost later recalled: “I thought back to a magical night when a friend and I went to see [Cab] Calloway at the Cotton Club [in Harlem] ... the city, the jazz, the Cotton Club, everything ... I knew I had to get it all on the bowl.”
The images on the Jazz Bowl, then, may be read as a night on the town in New York City, starting out in bustling Times Square; then on to Radio City Music Hall to enjoy a show; next, a stroll uptown past a group of soaring skyscrapers to take in a sweeping view of the Hudson River; afterward, a stop at a cocktail party; and finally—topping off the evening with a visit to the famous Cotton Club.
Schreckengost decorated the punch bowl with a deep turquoise blue background he described as “Egyptian,” since it recalled the shade found on ancient Egyptian pottery. According to Schreckengost, the penetrating blue immerses the viewer in the glow of the night air—and the sensation of mystery and magic of a night on the town.
The Famous Client
In early 1931, the finished bowl was delivered to the New York gallery and to the patron who had commissioned it. The pleased patron immediately ordered two additional punch bowls. To Schreckengost’s surprise and pleasure, this delighted patron turned out to be Eleanor Roosevelt, then First Lady of New York State. Mrs. Roosevelt had commissioned the bowl to celebrate her husband Franklin D. Roosevelt’s reelection as governor in November 1930. She presumably placed one bowl in the Governor’s Residence in Albany, one in the Roosevelts’ home in Hyde Park, New York, and one in their Manhattan apartment. When the Roosevelts moved into the White House in 1933 after Franklin D. Roosevelt’s election as President, one of the bowls made its way there as well.
Mass Producing the Jazz Bowl?
Immediately after the Jazz Bowl was delivered to Eleanor Roosevelt, the New York City gallery placed an order for fifty identical bowls. Unfortunately, Schreckengost’s process was laborious—it took Cowan’s artisans an entire day to produce the incised decoration on Eleanor’s version. Cowan Pottery then sought to mass produce the punch bowl, simplifying the original design, creating a second and third version. Though now known as “The Jazz Bowl,” Cowan Pottery originally marketed the mass produced versions as “The New Yorker.”
The Henry Ford’s bowl is the third version, known informally as “The Poor Man’s Jazz Bowl.” It is slightly smaller than the original and the decoration is raised, rather than scratched into the surface. No one knows how many Jazz Bowls were made in total; perhaps fifty of Eleanor’s version; only a few of the unsuccessful second version, and possibly twenty of the third version.
The whereabouts of many of the Jazz Bowls are not known. Periodically, they appear on the art market and are acquired by eager collectors. In fact, even the present location of the bowls made for Eleanor Roosevelt seems to be a mystery.
Jazz Bowl as Icon
The “Poor Man’s Jazz Bowl” didn’t save the Cowan Pottery from the ravages of the Great Depression – by the end of 1931, the company folded. Viktor Schreckengost continued teaching at the Cleveland Institute of Art, pursuing freelance design for several firms. Schreckengost moved on in his career, but his Jazz Bowl would come to be recognized as a visual icon of the Jazz Age in America.
-- Charles D. Sable, Curator of Decorative Arts