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Guide to the John Rogers Photograph Collection
1860-1927, undated
 PR 122

New-York Historical Society
170 Central Park West
New York, NY 10024
Phone: (212) 873-3400

© 2011 New-York Historical Society

Collection processed by Jennifer Lewis

This finding aid was produced using the Archivists' Toolkit on January 06, 2012
Description is in English.

Biographical Note

John Rogers was a prominent American sculptor of the second half of the nineteenth century. The popularity of his work was unprecedented among American sculptors; between 1860 and 1893 he sold approximately eighty-thousand works. His success has been credited to his keen marketing as well as to his passion for addressing themes close to the heart of middle class Americans. Rogers eschewed classical sculpture styles and instead produced extremely detailed, narrative sculpture groups that focused on themes of everyday American life, popular literature, and the Civil War. Cast in plaster in order to be affordable, the Rogers Groups were renowned for their wit, humor, and sentimentality.

Born in Salem, Massachusetts in 1829, Rogers counted among his ancestors several generations of New England clergymen and merchants. Rogers's immediate family, however, was not particularly wealthy, and discouraged their son's early artistic efforts on the grounds that the life of an artist would not provide a sufficient salary. Instead, Rogers began working as a machinist and draftsman. He lived in various regions of the country in the course of his career, finally rising to the rank of master mechanic for the Hannibal and St. Joseph Rail Road in Hannibal, Missouri in 1856. He lost this job in the money panic of 1857. Having time on his hands, Rogers decided to give in to his artistic aspirations and traveled Europe in 1858 to study with the masters. His experiences in Paris and Rome were discouraging. He disliked the predominant classical styles that were taught and discovered that even the finest American artists found it difficult to make a living from their work. After only a year abroad, he returned to Chicago to become a draftsman again, leaving behind his hopes of becoming an artist.

In Chicago in 1859, he was encouraged by a friend to submit a small sculpture for a church auction. The piece he submitted, Checker Players, attracted enough attention that within months Rogers decided to move to New York and become a professional artist. There he met with some initial resistance in getting his work into shops. To gain publicity, he hired an African American to sell his anti-slavery work,  Slave Auction, in the streets of New York, eventually drawing the notice of prominent abolitionists in the spring of 1860. Within the year he had made a name for himself and was getting positive reviews in the New York press. Stores were eager to stock his groups.

Rogers worked in plaster to keep production costs down and make his sculpture affordable. However, as orders increased, he became frustrated by the slowness and poor workmanship of his plaster casters. He endeavored to learn the trade himself and late in 1860 set up his own workshop, cutting costs and improving output. Although Rogers would produce some works in bronze and marble during his career, he would always be best known for his widely distributed plaster casts.

In the following years, he was increasingly successful. He broadened the audience for his work by placing groups in stores in Boston and Philadelphia. He began advertising in catalogs and periodicals and experimenting with packing methods so he could ship his works long distances. His works addressed a variety of themes, but those addressing the Civil War or portraying comical or literary scenes met with the most success.

In 1864, as his professional success grew, Rogers met and soon after married Harriet Moore Francis, a music teacher at Miss Haines' Gramercy Park Boarding School for Young Ladies. In 1866 they had their first child and began spending summers in New Canaan, Connecticut. By 1877 the family had built a house and made New Canaan their permanent home, returning to New York only occasionally. In New Canaan, Rogers built a studio adjacent to his house in which he sculpted the majority of his later works.

The Rogers Groups flourished in popularity through the 1870s and 1880s, but by 1889, the business began to go into decline as realism went out of fashion. Rogers, however, continued with his creative studio work, and produced one of his most acclaimed figures, a life-sized Abraham Lincoln, in 1892. Lincoln won a bronze medal the following year at the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago.

Rogers suffered through the late 1890s from a progressive illness and died in 1904. Although he is not remembered as a great classical artist, his ability to bring the appreciation of sculpture to a wide audience of Americans was considered revolutionary.