John Rogers may be largely forgotten today, but at one time he was among the most famous artists in the United States - and certainly the most famous sculptor.
Rogers, who died in 1904, specialized in small sculptures of groups of people which became known as "Rogers Groups." These highly detailed sculptures were mass-produced and sold for relatively low prices. It's estimated that more than 80,000 of Rogers' sculptures sold nationwide during the 1800s.
In the new exhibit "John Rogers: American Stories," on display at the Palmer Museum of Art on the Penn State University Park campus through May 15, Rogers' career is revealed to a new generation, who won't know the artist's work, or his efforts to distribute culture to the common man.
The painted plaster “Checkers Up at the Farm” was created by John Rogers in 1875.
"His goal was to create fine art that could be affordable to a mass audience," said Kimberly Orcutt, curator of American Art at the New York Historical Society in New York City and the curator of the exhibit. "The sculptures sold for $15 and they could be shipped anywhere in the country. He was one of the first to advertise his works and he was one of the first to use illustrations to advertise his works. He also was one of the first artists to use the railroad to ship his sculptures."
The exhibit is part of an effort to give Rogers the recognition that has avoided his work so far.
"He's not part of our historical canon and it's because he's hard to categorize," Orcutt said. "He was a very commercially successful artist and he was also a respected fine artist. And that was unusual for the time."
If you go
What: "John Rogers: American Stories"
When: Through May 15
Where: Palmer Museum of Art on the Penn State University Park campus
Museum hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday
For more information: Call 865-7672
The exhibit features works and Rogers' artifacts from the historical society's permanent collection, but the exhibit itself debuted at Penn State on Feb. 22.
"Penn State is the very first venue," Orcutt said. "It's kind of unusual in that normally the organizing museum is the first [exhibitor] of an exhibit, but we're undergoing major renovations right now, so Penn State was able to feature the exhibit first."
After the Palmer, the show will travel to the Dixon Gallery and Gardens in Memphis and then the show will come back to the New York Historical Society, where it will open in October 2012.
The Palmer was happy to get the exhibit, said Joyce Robinson, the museum's curator. And Robinson was even happier when the famed sculptor's pieces were revealed.
"I was struck by the size of the pieces in a way that I hadn't been when looking at images," she said in an e-mail. "These pieces were intended to be displayed in the home - in the parlor - yet they are not diminutive in any way. Many of the pieces are almost two feet tall - there are a few that are even larger - which is quite sizable when you envision them on a pedestal next to the piano in a 19th-century living room.
"We have recreated a Victorian parlor in the exhibition, complete with furniture and one of the beautiful wood pedestals Rogers sold along with his groups, to give visitors an idea of the domestic setting for which Rogers Groups were intended."
Robinson said Rogers was very different from other sculptors of his generation. And not just because of his "art for the masses" philosophy.
"Rogers struck a kind of middle ground with his sculpture," she said. "He was not interested in producing Neoclassical marble sculptures depicting mythological themes or historical figures - which would have been the arena of ambitious academic sculptors in the 19th century."
Orcutt explained that Rogers dealt with three main subjects:
n The Civil War. According to Orcutt, Rogers was one of the first successful artists to deal with the Civil War so soon after its conclusion. Most people avoided the topic, she said. Rogers also wasn't shy about dealing with race so soon after a conflict that dealt with it so directly.
"There's a wonderful sculpture called 'Wounded Scout, A Friend in the Swamp' that features a runaway slave helping a wounded soldier," Orcutt said. "So the runaway slave is the hero of the piece, and that was very unusual for that time."
n Normal American life. Part of Rogers' appeal was that he depicted parts of life with which his audience was familiar.
"He was a pioneer of American realism," she said. "He was one of the first sculptors to take on subjects from everyday life."
Robinson attributes the familiar subjects as part of Rogers' business acumen.
"Rogers was astute about the kinds of subjects Americans wanted to display in their homes," she said. "He once commented, 'I want each group to tell a story,' and he very happily imparted to Americans the stories about the Civil War and their daily lives that they wanted to see and hear."
n Theater. Before television and movies, before Vaudeville and traveling circuses, the theater ruled American entertainment. Orcutt explained that many famous actors were well-known through a trademark part, one that they would play again and again. Rogers got many of these esteemed actors to pose for him, in the guise of their famed roles.
"There's a wonderful group of sculptures [in the exhibit] that told the story of Rip Van Winkle," she said. "What we forget is that this was a Washington Irving story, but it was also a long-running, successful play, starring a well-known actor named Joe Jefferson. Rogers got Jefferson to sit for this set of three sculptures.
"When a 19th-century person would buy this sculpture, they'd know right away that it was Joe Jefferson."
But Rogers had celebrity of his own, thanks to his mass distribution of his work. Both Orcutt and Robinson call him "the most successful and popular" sculptor of the 19th century - a popularity the Palmer exhibit hopes to help bring back.
Of course, according to Orcutt, he wouldn't have been entirely comfortable with fame - posthumous or otherwise.
"Here at the historical society, we have his letters," she said. "In one, he writes that his fame still surprises him, and that when someone comes up to him for an autograph, he always thinks they have mistaken him for someone else."
Mirror Staff Writer Keith Frederick is at 946-7466.