Bronze or Plaster? The Artistic Choices of John Rogers

John Rogers (1829-1904), Union Refugees, 1863. Spelter or zinc bronze, 21 ½ x 12 ¼ x 8 ½ in. The New-York Historical Society, Gift from an unidentified source, INV.15037

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.”

Bronze or plaster? When you’re in the galleries of John Rogers: American Stories, you’ll see that about half of the sculptures are bronze and half are plaster, even though the 80,000 sculptures he sold during his thirty year career were plasters. Creating these plasters involved casting them from a “master” model. Rogers discovered that if he used a plaster master, the master would degrade over time and lose its fine detail, but bronze masters stayed intact. So, where there might be thousands of any one of his subjects in plaster, there’s only one master bronze. New-York Historical is fortunate to have 39 of them, and even though they weren’t originally made for display, they’re beautiful works of art in their own right.

But why did Rogers make plasters in the first place? In the late 1850s when he started out, marble was the most prestigious material for a sculptor to work with, and bronze was just coming into favor in the United States. Rogers tried sculpting in marble in 1861, and three years later he offered one of his Civil War subjects, Union Refugees, in bronze for $60 (over $1,000 in today’s dollars), but it didn’t sell. When he offered it in plaster at $15, it was a hit. Rogers wanted to create high quality sculptures that were within the reach of the average American who couldn’t afford marble and bronze. In the early years of his career he struggled over his decision because he knew that his work wouldn’t be taken quite as seriously in plaster (and he was right, because he is less well known today than his contemporaries). But his choice to work in plaster brought fine art to tens of thousands of people, and he was hailed for creating a new democratic form of art.



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