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.”
John Rogers couldn’t make it home to Roxbury, Massachusetts, for Christmas in 1859. He had just settled in New York and was trying to establish his career as a sculptor. His later success is the subject of the exhibition John Rogers: American Stories at the New-York Historical Society, but on Christmas Eve in 1859 he was a struggling artist in a new city. Our library holds hundreds of his letters home, and one of them, written on Christmas Eve that year, is particularly poignant. It gives today’s New Yorkers a glimpse of the early years of America’s most popular sculptor, and it offers a darker view of the city on the eve of the Civil War.
Rogers began his letter to his mother with delight at his Christmas box from home: “I was busy in my room modeling this morning when in walked Santa Claus with a box for me. It took me entirely by surprise & really if you had taken account of all my wants you could not have supplied them better (with the exception of a stove).” He described all the gifts from his family, thanking his mother, father, brother, and sisters for his new vest, tie, writing paper, watch case, pen, and match box. He affectionately wrote, “I only wish I could send the box back filled with something for all of you. I hope by another Christmas I can do more.”
If you click here to see Rogers’ full letter and transcript, you will also read his comments about The Slave Auction, his small sculpture that depicted a black family being tragically divided. As an abolitionist from New England, Rogers was unprepared for the mixed sympathies he found in New York. He lamented that “I find the time have quite headed me off, for the Slave Auction tells such a strong story that none of the stores will receive it to sell for fear of offending their Southern customers.” The Slave Auction never was a financial success, but soon it came to the attention of New York abolitionists and it brought Rogers strong critical notices that helped launch his career.