CHAPTER XXVIII. JOHN ROGERS.
There is scarcely a family of means and taste in the country but is the possessor of one or more of Rogers's groups in plaster. You see them in every art or book-store window, and they are constantly finding new admirers, and rendering the name of the talented sculptor more and more a household word.
John Rogers, to whom the world is indebted for this new branch of art, was born at Salem, Massachusetts, on the 30th of October, 1829. His ancestors were among the original settlers of the colony, and have resided in Salem for generations. His father, a merchant of moderate means and good reputation, was anxious to train his son to some regular and profitable business. As the basis of this, he gave the boy a good education in the common schools of the town, and in 1845, when he was sixteen years old, placed him in a dry-goods store in Boston to learn the business. He remained there for two years.
He gave early evidence of his artistic genius, and when a mere child had shown a taste and talent for drawing which increased with his years, and made him eager to become an artist. His parents, however, were desirous of seeing him rich rather than famous, and did all in their power to discourage him from making choice of a vocation which they considered but little better than vagabondage. They magnified the difficulties and trials of an artist's career, and so far succeeded in their efforts that he entirely abandoned his wish to make art a means of livelihood. He was not willing to forsake it altogether, however—he was too true an artist at heart for that—but contented himself for the time with continuing his efforts, merely as a means of personal enjoyment.
In 1847, feeling satisfied that he was not suited to a mercantile life, Mr. Rogers gave up his clerkship in Boston, and obtained a place in the corps of engineers engaged in the construction of the Cochituate Water Works. Here he had a fine opportunity for cultivating his talent for drawing, but the constant labor which he underwent so injured his eyes that he was compelled to give up his position. His physician advised him to make an ocean voyage for the purpose of re-establishing his health. Acting upon this advice, he made a short visit to Spain, and returned home very much improved by the voyage and the rest his eyes had enjoyed.
In 1848, soon after his return to this country, he entered a machine shop in Manchester, New Hampshire, to learn the trade of a machinist. He worked at this trade for a period of seven years, applying himself to it with great diligence and determination, and acquiring much mechanical skill and a thorough knowledge of the trade. He rose steadily through the various grades of his new calling—from the bench of the apprentice to the post of draughtsman in the designing department.
During this period he devoted himself enthusiastically to his art. Soon after his return from Spain, he had observed a young man modeling a figure in clay, and by closely observing him had learned the process, which until then was unknown to him. The labor of the youth pleased him very much, and the more because he saw in it a new means of artistic expression. He at once procured some clay, and, taking it to his room, commenced to practice upon the lesson which he had just received. From this time forward he continued his art labors, giving to them all the leisure time he could spare from his duties in the shop, where he was compelled to work from five A.M. until seven P.M. He would go to his room after supper, and by the light of a tallow candle work late into the night, modeling figures in clay, and bringing new fancies into shape. He says that frequently, although exhausted by his severe labor at the shop, he would be unable to sleep until he had molded into clay the idea which possessed his mind. These night studies, superadded to his daily duties, proved very trying to him. Yet he persevered, encouraged by his success with his figures. He endeavored to persuade some of his relatives to aid him in securing a better education as an artist, such as would have enabled him to abandon the machine shop; but they turned a deaf ear to him, and he was thus compelled to continue his daily task, which, under these circumstances, naturally grew more and more irksome.
In 1856, he was enabled to better his condition for a short time. He was offered the place of manager of a railroad machine-shop at Hannibal, Missouri, and promptly accepted it. In six months, however, he was out of employment, the panic of 1857 having caused the machine-shop to suspend operations. Having a little money in hand, which he had saved from his wages, he resolved to visit Europe, and study the works of the great masters in his art, and, if he could, to take lessons in sculpture from some competent teacher in the Old World. He went to Paris and Rome, remaining in those cities for a period of eight months, and endeavoring to share the enthusiasm for the great works around him which the artist world manifested. At the end of that time he came home convinced that classic art had no attractions for him, and was almost ready to declare that he had none of the true inspiration of an artist.
He did not stop long in the East upon his return. Going West at once, he obtained a situation in the office of the Surveyor of the city of Chicago. In this position he worked hard and faithfully, and his employers soon found that in him they had obtained a prize.
Meantime, although so much disheartened by his failure to accomplish any thing in Europe, he did not abandon his art studies, but continued to model figures in clay, and shortly after his arrival in Chicago, gave one of his groups to some ladies of that city, to be sold at a fair in behalf of some benevolent purpose. This was the "Checker Players," and was the first of his efforts ever submitted to the public. Its success was immediate. It proved one of the most attractive features of the fair, and the newspapers pronounced it one of the most satisfactory evidences of native genius ever seen in Chicago. Mr. Rogers was much pleased with its success, and soon followed it with "The Town Pump," one of his most popular compositions.
The popularity which these efforts attained, opened John Rogers's eyes to a correct perception of his true mission in life. He was not capable of accomplishing any thing in classic art, but here was a field in which a renown, unique and brilliant, might be won, and in which he might endear himself to thousands of hearts in the great world in which he lived. Both fame and wealth seemed opening up before him. He did not hesitate long, but resolved to follow the leadings of his genius. Having heard that a new process of flexible molds had been invented, by which the most intricate designs could be cast with ease, he came to New York in 1859, bringing with him his "Checker Players" and "Town Pump," and the model of a new group on which he was then engaged. Seeking an Italian familiar with the new process, he engaged him to cast his figures in plaster by means of it, and from him he learned how to practice the new method himself.
He now put forth his "Slave Auction," which he had modeled in Chicago and brought to New York with him. The antislavery excitement was then at its height, and this effort aroused the sympathy and won Mr. Rogers the support of the greater part of the people of the Northern States. There was a large demand for the group, and Mr. Rogers soon found himself obliged to employ assistance to fill the orders which kept crowding in upon him. By selecting a subject which was of the deepest interest to the people of the country, he had thus attracted attention to his merits, and he felt sure that by keeping the people supplied with works illustrative of the topics of the day, he would win the success to which he aspired.
He now ventured to establish himself permanently in New York, and, renting the garret of a Broadway building, set up his studio in it, and issued this modest card: "John Rogers, Artist, Designs and Executes Groups of Figures in Composition at his Studio, 599 Broadway." The success of his works had been so marked as to induce him to believe that he would have no difficulty in establishing a permanent business, and he set to work with enthusiasm. In quick succession he produced his "Fairy's Whisper" and "Air Castles," the latter of which is the only commission he has ever executed. The war began soon after, and supplied him with an abundance of popular subjects. These war subjects attracted universal attention, and sold as rapidly as he could supply them. A New York journal thus describes the "sensation" which they created in that city:
"All day, and every day, week in and week out, there is an ever-changing crowd of men, women, and children standing stationary amid the ever-surging tides of Broadway, before the windows of Williams & Stevens, gazing with eager interest upon the statuettes and groups of John Rogers, the sculptor. These works appeal to a deep popular sentiment. They are not pretentious displays of gods, goddesses, ideal characters, or stupendous, world-compelling heroes. They are illustrations of American domestic and especially of American military life—not of our great generals or our bold admirals, or the men whose praises fill all the newspapers, but of the common soldier of the Union; not of the common soldier, either, in what might be called his high heroic moods and moments, when, with waving sword and flaming eye, he dashes upon the enemy's works, but of the soldier in the ordinary moments and usual occupations of every-day camp life. For the last year or more Mr. Rogers has been at work mainly on groups of this latter class and character. Thus he has given us 'The Returned Volunteer, or How the Fort was Taken,' being a group of three gathered in a blacksmith's shop, the characters consisting of the blacksmith himself, standing with his right foot on the anvil block, and his big hammer in his hands, listening eagerly, with his little girl, to a soldier who sits close by on his haunches, narrating 'how the fort was taken,' We have also another group of three, 'The Picket Guard,' spiritedly sketched, as in eager, close, and nervous search for the enemy; the 'Sharpshooters,' another group of three, or rather of two men and a scarecrow, illustrating a curious practice in our army of deceiving the enemy; the 'Town Pump,' a scene in which a soldier, uniformed and accoutered, is slaking his thirst and holding blessed converse beside the pump with a pretty girl who has come for a pail of water; the 'Union Refugees,' a pathetic and noble group, consisting of a stalwart and sad-faced East Tennesseean or Virginian, who accompanied by his wife, who leans her head upon his bosom, and by his little boy, who looks up eagerly into his face, has started off from home with only his gun upon his shoulder and his powder-horn by his side, to escape the tyranny of the rebels; 'The Camp Fire, or Making Friends with the Cook,' in which a hungry soldier, seated upon an inverted basket, is reading a newspaper to an 'intelligent contraband,' who is stirring the contents of a huge and ebullient pot hung over the fire; 'Wounded to the Rear, or One More Shot,' in which a soldier is represented as dressing his wounded leg, while his companion, with his left arm in a sling, is trying to load his gun to take another shot at the enemy, at whom he looks defiantly; 'Mail Day,' which tells its own story of a speculative soldier, seated on a stone and racking his poor brains to find some ideas to transcribe upon the paper which he holds upon his knee, to be sent perchance to her he loves; 'The Country Postmaster, or News from the Army,' which, though a scene from civil life, tells of the anxiety of the soldier's wife or sweetheart to get tidings from the brave volunteer who is periling his life on the battle-field; 'The Wounded Scout, or a Friend in the Swamp,' representing a soldier, torn, and bleeding, and far gone, rescued and raised up by a faithful and kind-hearted negro—which we think is one of the best, if not the very best, of Mr. Rogers's works; and lastly, a group called 'The Home Guard, or Midnight on the Border,' in which a heroic woman, accompanied by a little girl, is represented as stepping out, pistol in hand, to confront the assailants of her humble home."
In 1862 Mr. Rogers removed his studio to the corner of Fifth Avenue and Twenty-sixth Street, where he still remains. He has followed up the earlier productions named above with "The Bushwhacker," a scene representing a Tennessee loyalist dogging the footsteps of the Southern army; "Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations," the best and certainly the most popular of his works,—a group of four, representing a Southern lady with her little boy, compelled to take the oath of allegiance in order to obtain rations for her family. A negro boy, bearing a basket for his mistress, leans on the barrel watching the proceeding with the most intense interest. The woman's face is wonderful, and it expresses eloquently the struggle in her breast between her devotion to the South and her love for the boy before her, and the officer tendering the oath almost speaks the sympathy which her suffering has awakened in him. The other works of our artist are "Uncle Ned's School," "The Charity Patient," "The School Examination," "The Council of War," "The Courtship in Sleepy Hollow," "The Fugitive's Story," "Challenging the Union Vote," and "Rip Van Winkle."
The process by which these exquisite groups are produced is exceedingly simple, but is one requiring considerable skill and delicacy of manipulation, and although the casting could readily be done by competent assistants, Mr. Rogers conscientiously gives his personal attention to every detail of the process. The artist takes a mass of wet clay of the desired consistency and size, and fashions it roughly with his hands to something like the proper shape. "It is sometimes necessary to make a little frame of wire upon which to lay the clay, to hold it in its proper place, the wire being easily made to take any form. The rough figure is then finished with the molding stick, which is simply a stick of pine with a little spoon of box-wood attached to each end, one spoon being more delicate than the other. With this instrument the artist works upon the clay with surprising ease. The way in which the works are reproduced is as follows: When the clay model is complete, a single plaster cast is taken for a pattern, and is finished with the most scrupulous care by Mr. Rogers himself. This cast is used as a pattern for making whatever number of molds may be needed to supply the demand for any particular group or statue. The molds are made of glue softened with water, so as to be about as limber as India-rubber. This is poured over the pattern while in a warm and liquid condition; it is, therefore, necessary to surround the pattern with a stiff case to hold the glue in place. This case is made of plaster, and is built up by hand around the pattern. When the glue has become sufficiently hard, it is cut by a thin sharp knife and pulled off the pattern. The parts are put together and bound by cord, making a perfect glue mold. The plaster of Paris is then poured into the mold inverted. A number of crooked pieces of wire are also placed in the mold to strengthen the figure. In about twenty minutes the plaster sets so as to allow the case to be opened, and the glue mold to be pulled off. To his proficiency in the mechanical part of his art Mr. Rogers attributes a considerable measure of his success, as it enables him to execute with facility every suggestion of his imagination, and to secure the perfect reproduction of his works by those to whom he intrusts that labor."
By placing his works at popular prices, ranging from $10 to $25 each, Mr. Rogers has insured the largest sale and greatest popularity for them, and has thus become a national benefactor. It is now within the power of every person of moderate means to possess one or more of his exquisite groups, and in this way the artist has not only secured to himself a sure means of wealth, but has done much to encourage and foster a popular love for, and appreciation of, the art of which he is so bright an ornament.
It was a bold venture to depart so entirely from all the precedents of art, but the result has vindicated both the artist's genius and his quick appreciation of the intelligence of his countrymen. "We can not enter into the feelings of ancient Greece," says a popular journal, in summing up his efforts, "and our artists who spend their time in attempting to reproduce that ancient art are only imitators. Their works interest only a small class of connoisseurs, and that interest is an antiquarian interest. It is not a vital, living interest, such as a Greek felt in his own work. It is not the natural, healthful, artistic feeling, the feeling for the beauty of realities, except in so far as it represents the feeling for the eternal attributes of beautiful form. It is an effort on the part of our artists to impose the forms and features of another age upon this one,—a task as impossible in art as in society, religion, and national politics."
Mr. Rogers is now in his forty-first year, and of all our American artists is, perhaps, the one best known to the masses, and the most popular. He is of medium height, carries himself erectly, and is quick and energetic in his movements. His face is frank, manly, and open, and the expression, though firm and resolute,—as that of a man who has fought so hard for success must be,—is winning and genial. He is a gentleman of great cultivation of mind, and is said by his friends to be one of the most entertaining of companions. In 1865 he married a daughter of Mr. C.S. Francis, of New York, and his fondness for domestic life leads him to pass his leisure hours chiefly by his own fireside.