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Maria and Julian Martinez Polychrome Pottery

By Medicine Man Gallery on


Maria Martinez polychrome pottery

Maria Martinez polychrome pottery
Courtesy of Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery

When you hear the name Maria Martinez, one automatically envisions the wonderful black on black pottery for which she and her husband Julian became famous. For the serious Maria collector however, the rarest and most desirable of all Maria’s work are her polychrome pots.

The term polychrome refers to a multicolor painted pot.  Maria and Julian’s polychrome pottery generally used a cream slip background with design elements painted in black and red-orange.

Occasionally, a red background with black and white designs was also done.  These rare polychrome jewels come in a variety of styles, both signed and unsigned.

The origins of San Ildefonso polychrome ware probably started around 1875 with known early examples occurring by the early 1880’s.

Susan Kliewer   Pueblo Legacy - Maria and Julian Martinez

Susan Kliewer
Pueblo Legacy – Maria and Julian Martinez
Bronze edition of 45, 22″ x 11″ x 6.5″

The first pieces were done with a laborious stone polishing technique which changed around the turn of the century when the native San Ildefonso slip was replaced with an easier cream color slip used by their Cochiti pueblo neighbors.

The new slip could be polished using a rag instead of a stone. This made production faster. Slip is used by collectors today to determine the age of polychrome pots. The rag slip has fine parallel lines and more of a matte finish.

Stone polishing is some what shiner and has very fine craquelure which can be seen under fine examination radiating through out the pot.  Another marker used to date these polychrome pots is the color of the rim which was generally red until 1910 then changed to black.

Maria, who is known for the exquisite polishing and shaping of her pots, worked with not only Julian but also Maximiliana (Anna), Alfredo Montoya, and Crescencio Martinez in the painting of her early polychrome pottery. Documented examples of Maria herself painting are extremely rare.

Collectors looking for early Maria polychrome pottery can find two types of pieces: signed or unsigned.

The unsigned seem to be more common than signed.  Signed pieces either bear the signature of “Marie” or “Marie and Julian.” The signature should be in the slip and in general is found on the bottom of the pot.

Maria and Julian Martinez rare polychrome plate

Maria and Julian Martinez rare polychrome plate
c. 1925, 2.5″ x 14.5″
Courtesy of Mark Sublette Medicine Man Gallery

Occasionally you will see a piece signed on the inside of the pot or even on the side, but these are extremely rare. Also seen, but not common, are early unsigned polychrome pots taken back to Maria to authenticate. These will be signed in pencil “Maria Poveka.”

If an unsigned pot is attributed to Maria, it should have an accompanying letter of authenticity by one of the experts in Maria pottery. Two of the current authorities in the field are Richard Spivey author of The Legacy of Maria Poveka Martinez and Dr. Mark Sublette author of dedicated to the lifework of Maria Martinez.

Jonathan Batkin, author of Pottery of the Pueblos of New Mexico 1700 to 1940, a mainstay for those interested in historic pottery, has a penchant for the early work of San Ildefonso Pueblo. Richard Dillingham, (deceased), author of Fourteen Families was also considered an authority on Maria.

Many types of polychrome pottery were done by Maria including corn meal bowls, effigies, canteens, plates, plaques, low bowls, jars, and even large ollas.

The polychrome plates are some of the most artistic pieces; the surface became a canvas on which Julian expressed his exceptional skill as a painter. These include large feather designs, abstract birds, and realistic eagle dancers. One of the rarest and most outstanding polychrome plates portrays two Koshare dancers climbing on a rainbow with two avanyu serpents centrally balancing the piece.

Susan Kliewer   Julian

Susan Kliewer, Julian
Bronze edition of 45
28″ x 12″ x 12″

Not only is the piece an outstanding tribute to Julian’s skill as an artist,  the nearly fifteen-inch gracefully crafted plate that allowed  Julian to accomplish his feat could only have been accomplished with the help of the master potter Maria. It seems appropriate this plate, made around 1925, is signed by Marie and Julian.

Shortly sometime after 1925 Marie and Julian transitioned to the production of black pottery. Their 1919 discovery of how to make black on black pottery would become not only their trademark and but also the reason for which Maria and Julian would became known worldwide.

Their black pottery tradition is continued today by many other Pueblo pottery masters of the Rio Grande pueblos.  For the avid Maria Martinez collector however, their collection is not complete until they have the earliest of Maries, a polychrome masterpiece.


This article was excerpted from Canyon Road Arts: The Complete Visitors Guide to Arts, Dining and Santa Fe Lifestyle, Vol 2, 2006-2007, pages 16-18. Canyon Road Arts is published by Medicine Man Gallery. All rights reserved.


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