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A beautiful, historic San Juan Pueblo red-on-tan
pottery food or “chile” bowl, c.1900-1920
We have a very special place in our hearts for these beauties. Historic San Juan Pueblo pottery of the 19th and early 20th centuries is, in our view, some of the finest, most beautiful historic Pueblo pottery ever created; defined completely by its purity of form and wonderful colors than by any painted decoration.
There are two varieties of classic historic San Juan Pueblo pottery; both were made in essentially the same ways with the same materials and made in the same basic forms. There is the black-on-grey variety and the much rarer variety, red-on-tan. In both varieties, a portion of the upper body of the vessel is slipped in a finely- polished clay slip and the lower part of the vessel is left un-slipped. The contrast between the polished red or black upper slipped area and the lower tan or grey unslipped area is what gives the vessel its great visual impact. An additional and extremely important dynamic element are always the marvelous deep black and grey firing clouds characteristic of these San Juan vessels, which are caused by direct contact of pieces of the burning fuel with the vessel walls during the firing process. These fire clouds are often so beautiful and seemingly placed so artfully that it has caused many pottery experts to speculate that this was deliberately arranged and orchestrated to occur in specific ways by the potters for artful effect although no one really knows this for certain. All we really know is that, as on this fine vessel, the fire clouds look very striking indeed and add immeasurably to the overall beauty of the piece.
Of the two varieties, the red-on-tan variety is significantly rarer and why this is so is not really known since the red-on-tan requires fewer steps to produce, being fired in an oxidizing atmosphere rather than a reductive atmosphere which requires the addition of a smothering agent, usually manure, on top of the fire at a certain point in the firing process.
All of which brings us to this fine red-on-tan bowl, which is a particularly beautiful example. This medium-sized bowl is what is generally referred to as a “food bowl”, “stew bowl” or “chile bowl” being of a convenient size in which to hold and carry individual servings of food. The bowl measures 7 ¾” in diameter and is 4” in height. The “keel” of the vessel is just slightly above the midline indicating a date around the first quarter of the 20th century, around 1900-1920. Earlier San Juan vessels are taller and more upright in profile with the keels being even higher on the vessel walls and with a wider slipped area above. Too, the outwardly flaring, slightly scalloped rim of the bowl also place it within this time period.
The skilled potter who made this bowl clearly knew her business; the vessel’s form is absolutely stunning,
the walls are even and thin, the slip was perfectly applied and the vessel was very finely stone polished.
Then there’s the completely gorgeous and plentiful fire clouds, whether they were deliberately placed or not. The bowl is in excellent original condition, there are no cracks and no significant chips and a thorough examination under ultraviolet light reveals no evidence of restoration or overpainting. There is some age-appropriate wear around the rim and some slight abrasions here and there on the body of the vessel.
All in all, considering that this is a century or so old vessel, the condition is quite remarkable.
This is a gorgeous example of San Juan’s fine historic pottery tradition and it would be a fine complement to any collection and setting; a truly historic older piece which also appears completely fresh and totally “modern” in its timeless visual appeal.
To view an older, larger example of historic San Juan Pueblo red-on-tan pottery, c.1850-60,
which is available on our website,
Present-day map of New Mexico Pueblos
-Photo source and © U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, Washington, D.C.
San Juan Pueblo village scene by Edward S. Curtis, 1927. The bowl in the lower right foreground of this photo could be the red-on-tan scalloped rim bowl featured here.