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.”
Happy Birthday John Rogers! The sculptor was born on October 30, 1829 and he is a favorite at the New- York Historical Society. From the 1859 to 1893, Rogers built a career as the most popular sculptor and the best-known artist in the country. He made small plasters (about 22 inches in height) of narrative subjects that came to be known as “Rogers Groups,” and he sold an amazing 80,000 of them over thirty years. He took on a range of subjects, dealing with sensitive issues of race and national divisions during the Civil War, home life and social issues in the 1870s, and then he engaged with popular culture, depicting scenes from the hit plays of his time and using celebrity actors as models.
Rogers was praised as a fine artist, but he was also an astute businessman. He priced his work affordably, advertised in magazines and newspapers, and shipped his groups across the country. He was called “the people’s sculptor” because he made it possible for almost anyone to own a work of art, and his sculptures were a common sight in American parlors.
The New-York Historical Society celebrates Rogers in a special way because he’s an important part of our collection. We own over 150 of his sculptures, including 39 master bronzes that he used to make his plasters. The Library holds Rogers’ papers, including hundreds of letters that he wrote home when he was a young man struggling to become an artist. Next Friday, November 2, we will open John Rogers: American Stories, an exhibition that surveys his remarkable career as a fine artist and a chronicler of American life during the Civil War and the tumultuous years that followed. In the meantime, go to www.johnrogers-history.org to see more about Rogers’ life and work and how he made his sculptures, and to read some of his letters (luckily for us, he had good penmanship, but there are transcriptions too)!