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.”
If you were shopping for a Christmas present 150 years ago, you might have thought about a Rogers Group. The plaster sculptures on view in John Rogers: American Stories were touted by newspapers and magazines all over the country in the 1860s and 1870s as tasteful Christmas gifts. For the Civil War veteran, Wounded to the Rear: One More Shot of 1864 was the perfect choice. Newlyweds would enjoy Coming to the Parson of 1870, a scene of impetuous young love (here you see the master bronze, but Rogers sold the plaster version). Doctors often received the charming Playing Doctor of 1872, which showed Rogers’ children Johnny and Katie dressed up as adults and consulting over their baby brother Charlie, the “patient.”
John Rogers was a household name in those years, selling his detailed, insightful narrative sculptures all over the country. They were considered an important accessory for a properly appointed parlor, and every year around this time Americans read suggestions, and even exhortations, that they were certain to please. One writer noted that “people are wondering what they can purchase for their friends that will be a good return for their money and place the recipients under lasting obligations to them. People of good taste send at once to John Rogers.” Another really put on the pressure: “To make an ill-chosen present is worse than making none at all, as it exposes one’s lack of perception and is suggestive of stupidity.” The writer advised bewildered shoppers that a Rogers Group was a good choice for the ladies.
Their aggressive promotion of Rogers seems a little strange today, but it was part of a much larger concern about improving public taste. Rogers was a critically acclaimed sculptor who took the bold step of producing his works in great numbers at an affordable price, and he offered middle-class Americans a unique opportunity to bring a work of fine art into their homes – that’s why he was acclaimed as “the people’s sculptor,” and no doubt he provided many a weary shopper with a suitable gift idea.