Decorative Arts

Snake Jug

Snake jug, ca. 1875–90
Anna Pottery (United States, flourished 1859–96)

Albany slip-glazed stoneware
11 x 10 inches in diameter
Gift of the Department of Ceramic Engineering, University of Illinois 1980-5-54

In 1859, Cornwall Kirkpatrick (1814–1890) and his brother Wallace (1828–1896) founded Anna Pottery in the southern Illinois town of Anna. Krannert Art Museum owns two of the brothers' best works—a snake jug (one of about two dozen known examples) and a directory jug (one of about ten). The whiskey (snake) jug bears 12 finely articulated timber rattlesnakes and three men. The snakes slither out of the jug and sprawl in tangles across most of its surface. Two young men dive into it through its sides and, in front, the head of an aged bearded man emerges, bedraggled. Five snakes are posed to attack the revenant from below; a sixth, striking from above, already has the crown of his head between its jaws.

Almost nothing is known of the reception of the Kirkpatricks' figural works in their own time. In the twentieth century, scholars saw the Kirkpatrick snake jugs as temperance warnings against the evils of drink. More recent interpreters, however, draw attention to the jugs' grotesque, macabre, sexual, and scatological aspects, their humor, and their self-consciously extravagant style, and argue that they are an ironic debunking of Victorian values. According to the reading, the Kirkpatricks were, like their contemporary Mark Twain, misanthropic liberals.

Text by Richard D. Mohr, from Krannert Art Museum: Selected Works, 2008