John Rogers, a native of Salem, MA, first turned his hand to sculpture in the late 1840s, when he began experimenting with clay modeling. He soon developed a distinctive style with great public appeal. His figures ranged in height from 8” to 48” on a variety of subjects, but his most prolific pieces were figure groups about 24” in height which depicted tableaux from contemporary life and famous literary works. Rogers modeled his groups in clay and then mass-produced them in plaster castings, which made them affordable for middle-class households and contributed to their popular appeal. By 1880, the unveiling of a new John Rogers group was an event covered by national newspapers.
While many Rogers groups depict gentle scenes from everyday life, such as Weighing the Baby and Going for the Cows, the series for which Rogers won his greatest critical acclaim addressed the social issues arising from the Civil War. In particular, Rogers’ depiction of slave life was unique among the artwork of his contemporaries. Indeed, the grouping which first drew the attention of the public was his 1860 The Slave Auction, displayed in New York, which illustrated an anguished slave family facing separation before the auction block: a helplessly angry father with arms crossed, and a mother clinging anxiously to her two tiny children. Some other groupings in Rogers’ Civil War series which depict African-Americans include The Wounded Scout: A Friend in the Swamp, which depicts a raggedly dressed African American man – perhaps an escaped slave – supporting a weary and wounded soldier as the two make their way through a swamp. The Fugitive’s Story depicts an African American woman, a child in her arms, standing before a desk and being scrutinized by three well-dressed white men, two standing, one seated behind the desk. In Camp Fire: Making Friends with the Cook, a white soldier warms himself by a campfire as an African American cook tends the soup-pot. Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations depicts a soldier who holds out a Bible while a woman rests her right hand upon it. A small boy clings to the woman’s skirts, while an African American youth in tattered clothing, holding a basket, leans on a barrel.
In addition to the groupings which made him famous, John Rogers also sculpted several monuments, the most well-known of which is the sculpture of General John F. Reynolds (1884) in front of City Hall in Philadelphia.