Criticism

Rogers’ reputation has evolved over time; over the years he has been praised, scorned, ignored, and recovered. After a meteoric rise in the 1860s and 1870s, regard for his work began to decline in the mid-1880s as artistic fashions changed. His reputation plummeted after his death, but just a few decades later his work sprang back to public attention.

For more information see Kimberly Orcutt, “The Rise and Fall – and Rise – of John Rogers,” in John Rogers: American Stories

1860s Rogers’ Civil War groups of the 1860s quickly established his fame with their timely subject matter. Critics complaining about American artists avoiding war subjects admired Rogers as an exception.

Wounded Scout: A Friend in the Swamp, 1864
Bronze
22 1/4 x 10 ¼ x 8 1/4 in. (56.5 x 26 x 21 cm.)
Purchase, 1936.655

The Slave Auction, 1859
Painted plaster
13 3/8 x 8 x 8 3/4 in. (34 x 20.3 x 22.2 cm.)
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman, 1928.28

Returned Volunteer: How the Fort Was Taken, 1864
Bronze
19 1/2 x 14 1/4 x 10 in. (49.5 x 36.2 x 23.5 cm.)
Purchase, 1936.640

  • “One of the most remarkable circumstances connected with the existing war is the very remote and trifling influence which it seems to have exerted upon American art” [however] “the spirited groups of Rogers show that he has had an eye to the dramatic aspects of the great struggle.” “Painting and the War,” New York Round Table 2 (July 23, 1864): 90
  • A “new star” in the artistic firmament. “Literature and Art,” Home Journal, December 21, 1861, 3.
  • He “fixes a new era in sculpture.” clipping, Springfield (Mass.) Republican, December 1863, John Rogers Scrapbooks, vol. 3, N-YHS
  • “We know no sculptor like John Rogers, of New York, in the Old World, and he stands alone in his chosen field. . . . Although diminutive, [his works] possess real elements of greatness.”4 James Jackson Jarves The Art-Idea 1864

1870s marked the high tide of Rogers’ critical fortunes.

Parting Promise, 1870
Painted plaster
21 3/4 x 10 1/4 x 7 3/4 in. (55.2 x 26 x 19.7 cm.)
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman, 1929.82

Rip Van Winkle Returned, 1871
Bronze
21 x 10 x 8 1/4 in. (53.3 x 25.4 x 21 cm.)
Purchase, 1936.653

Coming to the Parson, 1870
Bronze
22 x 16 1/2 x 10 in. (55.9 x 41.9 x 25.4 cm.)
Purchase, 1936.649

  • “The sculptor of the people.” Earl Marble, Cottage Hearth, June 1876, quoted in David Wallace, John Rogers: The People’s Sculptor, 120.
  • “Rogers is one of the prophets of the new era, when art museums are to be the order, and not the exception . . . when surplus money will not be spent on fast horses, high living, and other dissipation that lowers and sensualizes, but art will . . . be considered as much of a necessity as a common-school education is today.” “Gossip about Art,” Boston Daily Evening Transcript, October 16, 1871, 2.

1880s and 1890s Rogers Groups were still selling in prodigious numbers and he received high praise, but artistic styles were changing, and Rogers also received some less favorable notices.

Neighboring Pews, 1883
Painted plaster
18 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 12 3/8 in. (47 x 39.4 x 31.4 cm.)
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman, 1929.100

“Madam, Your Mother Craves a Word With You”, 1886
Bronze
20 x 20 x 11 in. (50.8 x 50.8 x 27.9 cm.)
Purchase, 1929.109

  • “The wave of interest in the fine arts then came by, and left Mr. Rogers somewhat in the position of a wreck so far as connoisseurs are concerned.” “The Statue of Reynolds,” New York Times, September 30, 1883, Rogers Scrapbooks, vol. 2, N-YHS.
  • “There is no sculptor in the United States who is better known to the people than John Rogers,” [however] “the sculptor whose works are to stand the test of time must secure the approval of the few competent critics rather than the approbation of the many.” “Art and Artists: John Rogers,” Graphic 9 (December 23, 1893): 527.
  • Rogers is a “true apostle of art” whose only “crime consists in multiplying these groups so as to furnish them to the people for a very little money.” See Toledo Daily Blade, March 5, 1885, Scrapbooks, vol. 4.

Twentieth Century
The decades immediately following Rogers’ death marked the low point of his reputation; with the advent of modernism, his genre subjects and meticulous realism were out of vogue. They became an easy target: in 1914 the Modernist Studios in New York held an Exposition of Bad Taste, amply furnished with Rogers Groups.

1920s Between the world wars, Americans felt a growing sense of cultural nationalism and a corresponding interest in American vernacular arts and decorative objects.

The Picket Guard, 1861
Painted plaster with metal parts
14 1/2 x 10 x 7 1/2 in. (36.8 x 25.4 x 19 cm.)
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman, 1929.112

  • “I adore Rogers Groups. I love all they stand for….They are honest and honorable art….Make fun of them indeed! Not until I make fun of my grandfather and the Civil War!” Walter Prichard Eaton, quoted in “Where Are Our Rogers Groups?,” Literary Digest 71 (November 19, 1921):28.
  • “What has become of all the Rogers groups which used to adorn our parlors? Have they been so completely laughed out of house and home that they exist no more? Or are they waiting in the attic [for] a rebirth of interest?” [His work is] “so far ahead of its time that even yet we haven’t begun to catch up to John Rogers!” Walter Prichard Eaton, “Catching Up to John Rogers,” American Magazine of Art 11 (September 1920): 392, 396

1930s  The nascent interest in Rogers Groups exploded in the 1930s as Americans began to collect them as folk art.

Checkers up at the Farm, 1875
Painted plaster
20 x 17 1/4 x 11 1/4 in. (50.8 x 43.8 x 28.6 cm.)
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman, 1928.29

  • “Today antique dealers are searching madly for these groups.” “A Yankee Sculptor,” Washington Post, December 12, 1931
  • Articles appeared in major newspapers with such titles as:
  • “Up from the Junk Pile: Neglected since Victorian Days, the Plaster Statuettes of John Rogers That Ornamented Our Grandparents’ Homes Have Returned to Favor.” Mabel Beard, New York Herald Tribune, November 22, 1931
  • “Renaissance Dawns for Grandmother’s Plaster Statuary,” Christian Science Monitor, November 6, 1935.

1940s Rogers’ work is often compared with that of Norman Rockwell, and Rockwell himself made a direct connection with Rogers in an April Fool cover for the Saturday Evening Post dated April 3, 1948, titled Curiosity Shop. In the lower right corner he included a "Rogers Group" that was composed of a soldier from Wounded to the Rear: One More Shot and the young woman from Coming to the Parson. Clearly, Rogers Groups were still familiar enough to the public that Rockwell expected his audience to understand the joke.

1950s In an era of rapid economic expansion and burgeoning corporate culture, critics focused on Rogers as a hero of commerce and a pioneer of business and marketing.

A Frolic at the Old Homestead, 1887
Painted plaster
22 x 16 x 14 in. (55.9 x 40.6 x 35.6 cm.)
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman, 1929.88

  • “[T]he businesslike John Rogers . . . manufacturing plaster groups.” Oliver W. Larkin, Art and Life in America (New York: Rhinehart, 1949), 279.
  • “A precursor to Henry Ford” Lloyd Morris, “Mantelpiece Americana: Rogers’ Statuettes Have a New Vogue,” New York Times Magazine, January 5, 1950, 21.
  • A “shrewd businessman” who “mass-produced the humor and sentiment of his period.” “John Rogers: Humorist in Sculpture,” Yankee, August 1952, 8.

1960s A new generation of art historians began to undertake serious study of American art, and they took notice of the artistic merits of Roger’s work.

Going for the Cows, 1873
Bronze
11 3/4 x 13 3/4 x 9 in. (29.8 x 34.9 x 22.9 cm.)
Purchase, 1936.650

  • “Fascinated…by the details of everyday American life”….[he showed a] “real  knowledge of anatomy”….and “skill with animals.” Margaret Farrand Thorp, The Literary Sculptors (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1966), 142–43.
  • “A successful union of art, industry, and commerce.” Milton W. Brown, American Art to 1900: Painting, Sculpture, and Architecture (New York: H. N. Abrams, 1977), 409.
  • “A unique transition between the literary imagery of the neo-classicists and the popular homilies of genre art.” John Wilmerding, American Art (New York: Penguin Books, 1976), 110.
 
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