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San Ildefonso Polychrome Pottery

While the distinctive blackware pottery originated by Maria and Julian Martinez in their home village of San Ildefonso around 1920 is now world famous, little attention has been given to San Ildefonso pottery created before their innovation. Yet, from 1875-1925, the polychrome pottery produced at San Ildefonso reached and represents a creative peak in the centuries' long history of pueblo pottery.

Before 1875, the pottery from San Ildefonso had a gray-slipped background with simple black designs painted on a bulbous rounded form. The use of red was conservatively confined to the rim and a narrow band on the bottom of the jar. Around 1880, potters at San Ildefonso began introducing red into the painted design on the main body of the jars. What prompted this introduction of red is unknown, but some scholars suggest that the arrival of thousands of curious travelers from the Eastern United States on the newly built railroad sparked the change. The tourists were eager to purchase pottery, and the polychrome wares of Acoma led the market. So, the addition of the red clay paint into the design and the development of more elaborate and precise designs on San Ildefonso pottery was thus a trader-inspired marketing attempt to compete with the popular pottery of Acoma and nearby Laguna. It is also possible that a single inspired artist, an unknown Nampeyo or Maria of an earlier generation, suddenly added red to the paint palette and created the first polychrome. Whatever the reason, by the early 1880s, hundreds of polychrome jars were being produced annually by the skilled potters of San Ildefonso for sale to the tourist and museum trade. In response to this demand, and for almost fifty years thereafter, the potters of San Ildefonso created well molded pots brilliantly decorated in black and red, whose size and beauty have not been surpassed since.
With the addition of red paint to the pottery during this period, we also see the designs themselves begin to develop from small crudely drawn abstractions to elaborate flowing designs covering the entire jar. The addition of red heightens the intensity of the black design and seems to urge the painter on to create larger more complex designs. Previous simple designs are now repeated in a larger and more intricate manner by later pottery painters: tradition IS carried forward. Yet an amazing array of both realistic and abstract bird designs are also introduced along with other pictorial elements. The shape of the vessels also evolves, from rounded bulbous jars with small necks to elegant tapered vases with small bases and flared out rims: the classic "Tunyo" form. For fifty years, we can study the steady growth and development of an art form as it crests into a peak! A peak produced by the same potters whose invention of blackware ironically doomed the San Ildefonso polychromes.

It is important to note that San Ildefonso was and remains a small village. In 1900 there were only 30 households, and in 1910 only eight women are noted in the census as pottery makers. We are fortunate to know the names of many of these early potters. Standing head and shoulders above their fellow potters at the turn of the century, are the husband and wife team of Martina Vigil and Florentino Montoya. Martina's excellent molding combined with Florentino's painting produced many excellent jars, including many fine large storage jars, most in the polychrome style. Born in the 1850s, they were certainly potting by the 1870s if not earlier, and their joint efforts became a model for the production of San Ildefonso polychromes: a family effort involving both sexes. The Montoyas were perfect role models for the younger Martinezes who built upon their success. Although unsigned, the Montoyas' innovative works forge an identifiable style that is recognizable to their students: a convex neck, a thick black framing line between two thin lines around the shoulder, and the slip on later pieces carried all the way to the bottom to increase the design area. Most importantly, around 1905, the Montoyas introduced the rag-wiped bentonite slip from Cochiti which quickly replaced traditional stone polishing. Maria and Julian, along with her sister Anna, and Tonita Roybal, as well as other distinguished potters took the polychromes to new heights of creativity and expression.

This florescence of polychrome production was brought to a sudden and near complete halt by the Martinezes' invention of painted blackware around 1920. For, as Ruth Bunzel observes, the attraction of the blackware is its polished background and the painted matte designs are minimized to emphasize the shiny slip which now dominates. This aesthetic is the exact opposite of the polychromes where intricate black and red designs were sharply contrasted against the midtone grey slip. In the war of aesthetics, the blackware won and by 1925 Bunzel can no longer find a single piece of polychrome ware in the village. And yet it is ironic that the Martinezes themselves began as polychrome potters and were among the greatest of them. Though the vast majority of their output was blackware, Maria and Julian continued to produce occasional polychrome masterpieces right up until Julian's death in 1943. One cannot help but wonder if the bold artistic tradition of the traditional polychrome medium didn't occupy a special place in their hearts.

Obviously, there is more research to be done on these artists and their work. But without doubt, their wonderful abstractions of floral and animal life, created before Picasso and modern 20th century art, along with their gracefully molded forms, will continue to push Native American art to the forefront of art history and increase our understanding of art and ourselves. We are gradually seeing that the same circumstances which produce European art also produces native art, that indeed mankind's family is universal and one. We are proud to present this selection of San Ildefonso Polychrome pottery.


With thanks to Jonathan Batkin, Ruth Bunzel, and Frank Harlow.