The Van Briggle story – An American art tale
Once upon a time there was a potter, an art potter, named Artus. Artus Van Briggle was a native of Ohio, but life events brought him to the Pikes Peak region where he created an artistic legacy that has endured for more than a century – the world-renowned Van Briggle Pottery. The decorative “bas relief” pottery with its opaque “matte” finish in rich colors became the epitome of the Art Nouveau style, restful at the end of the overly-decorated Victorian era.
The tall dark-haired young man with delicate features had a dream: he wanted to resurrect a pottery technique and style that had been “dead” for several centuries. He had two angels who helped him in this artistic quest. Artist and art teacher Anne Gregory became his wife and business partner. Maria Longworth Nichols was his patroness, for years encouraging and financing his artistic creativity.
Artus Van Briggle was born to artistic parents on March 21, 1869, in Felicity, Ohio. His family left the tiny farm community for bustling Cincinnati, a place that young Artus could further his artistic abilities. His first job was painting faces on china doll heads. He apprenticed at the Avon Pottery and studied at the Cincinnati Art School.
Then, Artus became employed at the large prestigious Rookwood Gallery, also in Cincinnati. Rookwood’s founder and owner, Mrs. Maria Longworth Nichols, saw the young man’s artistic potential, and she sent him to study art in Paris and Italy in 1893.
Studying abroad, Artus became fascinated by a pottery exhibit he viewed at the Louvre Museum in Paris – the 13th century Ming Dynasty collection. Fascinated by the satin-y pieces in lush hues, he learned that the glazing technique was a lost art. For several years he would experiment until he finally rediscovered the formula for the mysterious “dead” matte glaze.
While in Paris, Artus met Anne who was also an artist. Within months, the couple realized they had “a bond beyond our shared love of art.” Within a year, they became engaged. Artus returned to the U.S. in 1896 where he resumed work at Rookwood, but he harbored the hope of resurrecting “dead” matte glaze that captivated his attention in Paris.
Illness dictated his next major life decision in 1899. Like thousands of others at the turn-of-the-20th century, Artus moved to Colorado Springs hoping to heal from tuberculosis.
Artus immediately established the Van Briggle Art Pottery Company, throwing pots and firing them in a fire assay kiln at Colorado College. He also searched for ideal clays and found them in different Colorado locales – the Garden of the Gods vicinity, near Calhan and Ramah northeast of Colorado Springs and clay quarries in Golden; he also used clay shipped from north Georgia and from England.
Anne arrived in Colorado Springs in 1900, taking a job as an art teacher.
“We were quite a group of Art Workers,” a close friend later recalled.
Artus and Anne designed their distinctive logo – two back-to-back A’s enclosed in a box, still in use more than a century later.
With its curving forms and vegetative motif, the pottery became a stunning example of the Art Nouveau style that peaked in 1900, a style spurred by the English Arts and Crafts Movement that revived personal craftsmanship. The Van Briggles embraced the ideal of “let the pot itself carry its own beauty” rather than covering it in shiny, ornate colors and patterns.
The Van Briggle kilns produced vases, bowls, lamp bases and pots with the unique satin-finish. The curvaceous and sculptural pottery was alive with three-dimensional floral motifs, foliage and nature’s creatures – swans, geese, dragonflies and butterflies – as well as mythical images of Lorelei, water nymphs, mermaids, sirens of the sea and ladies of the lake. Favorite features included peacock feathers, poppies, water lilies, dogwood and native Colorado vegetation such as Columbine, crocus, morning glory, aspen leaf, mountain fern and yucca.
The Van Briggle Art Pottery Company first operated in a facility built by Artus and Ann at 615-17 North Nevada Avenue (gone today). There, Artus produced his first commercial pottery in August 1901. In early December, the company had its first public exhibition of 300 Van Briggle pieces, which quickly sold thanks to the oncoming Christmas season.
In spring 1902, Mrs. Nichols helped organize the Van Briggle Pottery Company capitalized with $50,000 in stocks. Primary stockholders included leading Colorado Springs citizens like Gen. William Jackson Palmer and mining millionaire Winfield Scott Stratton.
That same year, Artus and Anne culminated their six-year-long engagement, and married on June 12 at the Starr Ranch near Cheyenne Mountain. They were both 33. Soon after the wedding, the bridegroom spent a month at a Denver sanitarium, an omen of things to come.
Van Briggle pottery immediately received international acclaim. Artus and Ann submitted 24 pieces in the Paris Salon of 1903 and received two gold, one silver and 12 bronze medals. In 1904, they entered 100 pieces of Van Briggle pottery in the Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exposition in St. Louis and were awarded two gold, one silver and two bronze medals.
Tragically, Artus died while the St. Louis Fair was underway, and the Van Briggle exhibition cases were draped in black mourning cloth. The artist was buried in Colorado Springs’ Evergreen Cemetery where his gravestone epitaph reads, “Whosoever loveth the labor of his work the gods have called.”
Anne took over the business. In 1905, assisted by head potter Ambrose Schlegel, she entered Van Briggle Pottery in the Lewis and Clark Exposition in Portland, Ore., where the pieces won the highest award, a gold medal.
She remarried Etienne Ritter, a mining engineer, on July 14, 1908. Anne commenced construction of a new pottery facility in honor of Artus. In February 1910, the Memorial Pottery opened at Glen and Uintah streets. Designed by a Dutch architect in a Dutch/Flemish style, the redbrick building with stepped-gable ends blazed with colorful, decorative terra cotta tiles in hues of turquoise, green, yellow and plum.
Anne’s involvement in the business declined, and she moved to Denver. After bankruptcy, the company emerged as Van Briggle Pottery and Tile Company producing tiles used in fireplaces, hearths, bathrooms and boudoirs, as well as “figurals” – statues of animals, female figures and Indians. Van Briggle products were shipped globally and collected enthusiastically.
In 1953, the company opened an auxiliary facility in the vacant Terminal Midland Railroad roundhouse at U.S. 24 and 21st Street. The entire business re-located there and Colorado College bought the Memorial Pottery building in 1968. In 2008, Van Briggle Pottery moved out of the roundhouse to 1024 South Tejon St.
Van Briggle collectors have identified 904 patterns for art pottery. Van Briggle pottery is displayed at the Metropolitan Art Museum in New York City, Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C., and the Louvre Museum in Paris. You can see the famous pottery at the Colorado Springs Pioneer Museum or the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center. In downtown Colorado Springs, Van Briggle art tiles beautify the numerous decorative flower planters.