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John Rogers: American Stories

touring February 2011 through October 2012


By far the most popular American sculptor of his eventful era, John Rogers (1829-1904) was unprecedented in the United States as an astute and tireless maker and marketer of artworks for a broad audience. From the beginning of the Civil War to the end of the Gilded Age, he sold more than 80,000 narrative figural groups in plaster, reaching the American public en masse and addressing the issues that most touched their lives. His arresting and memorable subjects included scenes from the front lines and the home front of the Civil War, insightful commentaries on domestic life and dramatic episodes from the stage and literature. Often selling for $15 apiece, Rogers's works became commonplace in the homes of middle- and upper-class Americans in the later 19th century. (right: John Rogers (1829-1904), The Slave Auction, 1859. Painted plaster. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Samuel V. Hoffman, 1928.28)

Now, drawing on its premier collection of Rogers's work, the New-York Historical Society has organized the first full retrospective of this singularly influential American artist. In the spirit of a pioneering cultural entrepreneur who used the railroads to market his sculptures cross-country, John Rogers: American Stories will be a touring exhibition. Forty iconic sculptures (including nineteen bronzes), the tools the artist used to create them and ephemera from Rogers's collection will be featured in the exhibition, on view at the Palmer Museum of Art (University Park, PA) from February 22 through May 15, 2011 and at The Dixon Gallery and Gardens (Memphis, TN) from June 19 through October 9, 2011, and back home at the New-York Historical Society in October 2012.

Speaking of the remarkable appeal of John Rogers's works to Americans of his era, Linda S. Ferber, Vice President and Senior Art Historian at the New-York Historical Society, stated, "His mature career from 1859 to 1893 spanned a period of national trauma and tumultuous change. During that time, Rogers was able to gauge the pulse of popular American life, and his most successful works reflect his countrymen's dreams, fears, and concerns."

"This new look at Rogers's achievement shows his understanding of the subtle questions facing a nation at war, his embrace of social issues and the sheer delight in American life that earned him the title 'the people's sculptor,'" stated Kimberly Orcutt, Curator of American Art, who is the exhibition's curator.

In addition to presenting a wealth of Rogers's sculptures, the exhibition will include materials such as mail order catalogues, advertisements and stereograph views, vividly illustrating how his works were presented and promoted to the public. Rogers advertised widely, established a factory for large-scale production of his sculptures and shipped his plasters across the country at a time when the average American had little access to original works of art.

Among the most striking of his works in 2011, the year marking the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War, are the war-related sculptures that won him his first great success. Encompassing a wide range of moods, from the profound to the humorous, these sculptures address heroism at the battle front, scenes of camp life, sensitive questions of race and the dangers and complexities of life on the home front. Most of them celebrate the anonymous soldier and the families behind the lines dealing with a changed world. (left: John Rogers (1829-1904), Checkers Up At The Farm, 1875. Painted plaster. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman, 1928.29)

John Rogers: American Stories is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue edited by Kimberly Orcutt with essay contributions by Melissa Dabakis, Jessica Fracassini, Leslie Ransick Gat, David Jaffee, Michael Leja, Leo G. Mazow, Kirk Savage, Thayer Tolles and Erin Toomey. The exhibition is also accompanied by an interactive audio tour and a permanent website featuring detailed entries on the Rogers works in the New-York Historical Society collection, a chronology, image galleries, examples of ads and sales catalogues, ephemera, selected letters and a diagram showing how Rogers made his sculptures.

 John Rogers: American Stories is part of the Historical Society's traveling exhibitions program Sharing a National Treasure. The exhibition will allow audiences to enjoy and study superb examples of the Historical Society's Rogers collection (comprising more than 150 sculptures including 39 master bronzes, letters, photographs and other materials) while the galleries of the N-YHS are closed for a transformative $65 million renovation project, to be completed in November 2011.

"Our mission for the Sharing a National Treasure program is to ensure that audiences throughout the United States have access to the great artworks and priceless artifacts of the New-York Historical Society, New York City's first museum and one of the nation's oldest collecting institutions," stated Louise Mirrer, President and CEO. "John Rogers made his career in New York, where his unique blend of artistry and entrepreneurship was perfectly suited to the country's cultural and commercial capital. It is eminently appropriate that the New-York Historical Society should undertake a long-overdue reexamination of his oeuvre."

John Rogers: American Stories is made possible by the Henry Luce Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts as part of American Masterpieces: Three Centuries of Artistic Genius, a major initiative to acquaint Americans with the best of their cultural and artistic legacy.


(above: John Rogers (1829-1904), Challenging the Union Vote, 1869. Painted plaster. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman, 1929.113)


(above: John Rogers (1829-1904), The Mock Trial: Argument for the Prosecution, 1877. Painted plaster and/or terracotta. New-York Historical Society, Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman, 1929.114)

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