John Rogers Groups: A look at the past, a look at ourselves

This article was originally published in The Antique Trader Weekly in the spring of 1975. The following is excerpted from the compilation The Antique Trader Annual of Articles, volume IV.

Read Antique Trader editor Eric Bradley’s comments on this new feature taking a look through Antique Trader’s past.

John Rogers was a “born” artist. But early training by a high school art instructor developed his talent more toward the practical art of drafting than toward the expression of abstract ideas. And when he turned to modeling clay as a hobby in 1849, the subjects he liked to portray didn’t fit the mold of the day. Sculptors in that era were busily creating imitations of the idealistic, classic figure – scantily clad, skimpy of detail.

Rogers’ work on the other hand, depicted life around him. He sculptured ordinary people, engaged in everyday activities, modeled with meticulous detail.

Consequently, the young New Englander didn’t cut a very wide swath in the art world for the first 10 years of his creative efforts. During that time he designed or modeled as a pastime, 51 pieces. But aside from a few ribbons won at fairs, his works received little notice. Most were given to friends and family. Of them, only “Checker Players” (1855) and “Nightmares” (1857) survive.

This period of John Rogers’ artistic endeavor was capped with a brief stint as a serious student of sculpture in Europe during the winter of 1858-59. The experience only emphasized his non-conformity of style. It left Rogers discouraged to the point of quitting.

So it was, that in June 1859 John Rogers, a would-be artist and former surveyor’s assistant, dry goods clerk, machinist, and railroad master mechanic, wound up in Chicago working as a draftsman. He was 30 years old. And according to David Wallace in his book, “John Rogers, The People’s Sculptor,” Rogers at that juncture considered himself, “purged forever of the hankering for the artist’s life.”

Two months later he was launched on a professional sculpting career that would span nearly 40 years and would bring him unprecedented popularity in his own lifetime. Today his work is a hot item on the collector’s market – for those who can afford the price.

It was a little clay scene depicting a pair of checker players that did it. The group, similar to the one he’d done earlier, Rogers modeled to be raffled off at a charity bazaar. The piece netted the charity cause $75. But more significant, at least for John Rogers, was the favorable response it attracted from the public and in the press.

Encouraged, he started a new group, “The Town Pump,” followed shortly with “The Slave Auction,” a bold statement against slavery. And in the best tradition of his Massachusetts, merchant ancestors, John Rogers started making plans for turning his fragile clay creations into more marketable plaster and bringing them to public attention.

In November, he moved to New York City. But for nearly four years, solid success eluded him. He turned out several well-received groups, but had a hard time settling on a medium. During that trial and error period, Rogers learned plaster casting, made a few fruitless attempts at works in the traditional style, and tried marble sculpting. The latter he found exasperatingly slow. Then, after an experiment with spelter (zinc/bronze alloy) in “Union Refugees,” Rogers returned to his original plan of “large sales and small profits.” Plaster was cheap, it was fast, and he could handle the casting himself if necessary.

That decision, in August 1863, put Rogers firmly on the right track. People liked his subject matter, which, in addition to the homey, everyday scenes with which they could so readily identify, by then included a number of vignettes of the Civil War. Some, such as “Union Refugees,” touched the heart; others showed the lighter side of military camp life. And the price was right. Most Rogers’ groups were priced between $5 and $15 (later some were slightly higher). For the first time, the ordinary citizen could own a piece of fine art work – if not quality in material, at least artistically fine.

To make his groups, Rogers first sketched the design, and then modeled it in clay. From this was taken a pattern cast for the bronze master model. The bronze was used to make a pliable mold into which the plaster was poured, wire embedded in weak areas for support. The finished groups were coated with boiled linseed oil, and then painted putty gray.

For nearly four decades, the sculptor turned out his groups by the thousands. The bulk of his creative work was done in New Caanan, Conn. His factory and showrooms were in New York City. The number produced of his 208 known professional works has been estimated at 100,000 by his great-grandson, John Rogers III of New Canaan. Of these, only about 3,000 are accounted for, including those in private and public collections. Most are located in the Boston to Washington, D.C., area, centering around New York City. This too, is the area of heaviest original sales, and consequently is the “happiest hunting ground” for collectors.

However, John Rogers’ works were sold extensively by mail order and can be found today in all parts of the country. In fact, [at the time of publishing] one of the finest private collections judging by the number of original condition and mint pieces is located in Texas. Including 55 different groups and several duplicates, the collection boasts 30 in original condition.

It was this collection that introduced me to John Rogers’ work. And my own first look made me an enthusiast – if not in pocketbook (prices range from $200 to $3,500 [in 1975 dollars] at least in spirit. I could easily see how the people of the artist’s day were so “taken” with his work. The family themes, especially, are so easy to relate to.

The little boy in “Going for the Cows,” for example, might have been one of my own sons a few years ago. “Chores Forgotten,” Rogers’ farm boy is intent on his dog’s frantic digging at a woodchuck hole, while his horse grazes contentedly nearby. My sons were given to chasing rabbits while their tractors idled, forgotten in a half-plowed field. A suburban parent might see his or her own son in the sculpture, lawnmower abandoned for more interesting pursuits.

And who, that has ever felt young love, could fail to identify with the prideful self-conscious groom-to-be, or with his coy little sweetheart in “Coming to the Parson”?

One of the more expensive of Rogers’ works at $15 (when first released in the late 1800s), was also the most popular. Some 8,000 copies of “Coming to the Parson” were sold between 1870 and 1890.

Those two and many other pieces in the Texan’s collection caught my fancy. Among them were “Council of War” (pat. 1868) depicting President Lincoln and Secretary Stanton and General Grant in a strategy session, and “Uncle Ned’s School” (pat. 1866) the only all-Negro group produced by the artist. In that group, three blacks are taking time to study amid the day’s routine (the man is polishing a pair of boots). Typically, the little boy is somewhat distracted by other things. According to Wallace’s book, the piece was “immediately hailed as a powerful commentary on the freed Negro’s determination to educate himself and improve his own lot by his own efforts.”

Other outstanding groups … include “The Fugitive’s Story” (pat. 1869) a civilian counterpart to “Council of War.” It shows three prominent abolitionists, poet John Greenleaf Whittier; editor William Lloyd Garrison; and minister Henry Beecher listening to a slave woman’s tale of suffering.

Another is “The Wounded Scout – a Friend in the Swamp” (pat. 1864). This work, a copy of which the artist gave to President Lincoln, is of a runaway slave supporting a wounded Union scout as they make their way through a swamp. It was praised by many as a lesson in brotherhood. Likewise widely acclaimed, and since, considered as Rogers’ masterpiece, was “Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations” (pat. 1866), which shows a Southern woman taking the oath of allegiance to the Union in order to draw rations for her hungry family.

In addition to the many outstanding groups, are several John Rogers stereoptician cards which the artist used as one phase of his extensive advertising program. The cards, and other related memorabilia are suggested as an inexpensive way to collect John Rogers.

One reference book documenting John Rogers’ work is “Rogers Groups, Thought and Wrought” (1934) by Mr. and Mrs. Chetwood Smith. It, however, is a collector’s item in itself and copies are almost impossible to find. [With the use of the Internet and a bit of patience, the title can be found online. — Editor]

Most treasured in one collection are two spelter copies of “Union Refuges.” Only four others of the 13 originally sold in this material are located. The spelter groups are believed to be the first of three variations of the piece. The rest are in plaster. One parian copy (probably made in Europe) is known.

The group shows a Union family in flight from their southern home. The wife’s head rests wearily on her husband’s shoulder. At her side, their little son looks up, trustingly into his father’s face. It was “Union Refugees” that earned Rogers’ acceptance into New York’s National Academy of Design, an association of artists. At 22 inches, the sculpture was the first of Rogers’ works in the large size. Earlier groups ranged in height from 9-14 inches. The majority average about 20 to 24 inches, and weigh from 35 to 65 pounds.

As for that old antique collector’s headache, reproduction, there are a few of these around, too …. There are differences readily apparent to the knowledgeable collector. For example, the fakes lack the detail for which John Rogers was such a stickler. They also are heavier and have a different “ring.” And any chipped places will show the plaster chalk white; the old has a yellowed hue.

To a serious collector, keeping informed is important. A big help to others is the John Rogers Group, organized in 1971. Its 78 member families represent most areas of the country. Headquartered in New Canaan, the group meets twice annually. John Rogers III was one of its founders.

“Its purpose,” Rogers says of the organization, “is to exchange information … the exchange of duplicate groups, and to provide information regarding the repair and restoration of Rogers groups … to further interest in the groups and their sculptor.”

The New Canaan Studio and Museum, in which the 35 year old Rogers oversees the exhibits, is a National Landmark. Some 2,000 visitors toured the museum (in 1975). ?

The article goes on to quote an anonymous Texas collector, who states: “Ninety percent of the time, the antique dealers don’t even know what you’re talking about when you ask for a John Rogers” … “John Rogers’ work is older and more rare than that of Remington or Russell, and it’s pure Americana, from the Civil War to the turn of the century. Yet the average art director turns up his nose because it’s plaster,” he said. “But someday,” he concluded emphatically, “the American art world will wake up and recognize it for what it is.”

John Rogers died in 1904. As the “People’s Sculptor” he and his family had lived comfortably on the profits from his talent and business enterprise. And although he was never an extremely wealthy man, Rogers left a legacy far more valuable than money – a detailed look at American life in the late 19th century, as seen by a man of good humor and deep compassion. -Editor


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