In honor of our upcoming exhibition, John Rogers: American Stories, curator Kim Orcutt will be writing a series of posts about his life, his work, and how he earned the nickname “The People’s Sculptor.”
In 1939, the Travelers Insurance Company rang in the New Year with a gift to its customers: a monthly calendar illustrated with Rogers Groups. The sculptor John Rogers was wildly popular fifty years earlier, selling an estimated 80,000 of his small narrative plasters from the 1860s through the 1890s. But why did Travelers think that their customers would want to see his work on their walls nearly a half century later?
Rogers’ story-telling vignettes packed with meticulous detail were an indispensable part of a proper Victorian parlor, but tastes began to change in the late nineteenth century and they lost their charm. As modernist styles came into vogue in the early 1900s, newly chic Americans relegated the sculptures to their attics.
Artists with long careers often fall out of favor in their later years, and it’s not surprising that Rogers’ work met that fate. What is startling is how quickly it returned. In the 1920s, collectors began searching out his sculptures for their nostalgic value as Americana, and by the 1930s they were in high demand. The 1939 Travelers Insurance Company calendar acknowledged that Rogers had made a comeback, and his works were bringing insight and comfort to Americans in a decade marked by a crippling depression and international tensions that would soon lead to war.
Ever since, Rogers Groups can be found in cultural institutions all over the country and in private collections, which were sometimes opened to the public as populist “museums” (Rogers, a great advocate for democratic art, would have liked that). Visit our John Rogers site see what critics said about Rogers as his reputation rose and fell—and rose again!