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Sunday, July 15, 2012

John Rogers

Sculptor, John Rogers with a typical work
in clay.
Every so often, as I peruse (devour might be a better word) various volumes on the subject of art history, a name jumps out at me. That's what happened when, several years ago, I came upon the name of John Rogers. Why? Well, John Rogers was the name of my mother's father--my maternal grandfather. It's just a coincidence, of course. They weren't even the same generation, though my mother's family did hail from Massachusetts where the sculptor, John Rogers, was born in 1829, so there's always the possibility he might be a distant ancestor. He could have been my grandfather's grandfather, but I don't think so. In any case, I love his work. In many ways, his genre sculpture groups would make him something of a 19th century, 3-D Norman Rockwell, except that many of his works had a very serious subject matter.  He was an abolitionist zealot. His first major work, Slave Auction gained him almost instant fame as it was co-opted by the abolitionist movement as a visible, tangible depiction of all that was detestable in the institution of slavery.
The Fugitive's Story, 1869, John Rogers

Rogers wanted to be an artist, even as a boy, but an economic disaster effecting the family fortunes forced him to become a mechanic instead. Still, in his spare time, he liked to model small, realistic figures in clay. Eventually he saved up enough money to travel to Europe (conveniently during the Civil War years) where he immersed himself in Italian Renaissance and Baroque sculpture. Though the anatomical studies perhaps served him well, when he returned, his style was little changed. He was not interested in carving Italian rocks but modeling American clay. While other American sculptors were carving pristine, white marble nudes in a Neoclassical mode, he turned his hand toward groups of figures.  His 1869 grouping, The Fugitive's Story, is typical.  It depicts John Greenleaf Whittier, Henry Ward Beecher, and William Lloyd Garrison (all leaders in the Abolitionist Movement) grouped around a small desk, listening intently to a young mother with an infant in her arms, telling of her daring escape from slavery.
1875, John Rogers

Later, as his popularity grew, he turned to more lighthearted subjects such as Checkers, up at the Farm (1875).  Rogers was the first sculptor to copyright his works. And, capitalizing upon their popular appeal, he set up a factory to cast them in plaster. Each grouping, approximately two feet tall, sold for as little as ten to twenty dollars. Some of the castings reached issues of up to ten thousand copies. New pieces were eagerly awaited by his devotees. For several years he put out up to five new works per year. Eventually, more expensive versions came to be cast in bronze. Each grouping was quite realistically modeled with a wealth of narrative detail, easily making him the most popular American sculptor of the nineteenth century--also the richest. Of course this too would lead me to believe that he was not one of my mother's distant relatives. Insofar as I know, there is no history of great wealth on the Rogers side of the family. And alas, not on the Lane side either.

The Council of War, 1868, John Rogers, depicts
Grant, Lincoln, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton 

1 comment:

  1. It's always nice to read an article on John Rogers. As a collector of Rogers Groups, and a coauthor of a book on John Rogers written by my parents, I am always interested in hearing from anyone who has a Rogers piece, particularly if you are interested in selling it! You can contact me at or you can call me at 516-791-4353. I look forward to hearing from you. Bruce Bleier