The Story Behind John Rogers: American Stories

April 18, 2011 at 5:41 pm Leave a comment

Rogers sculpted this scene from The Merchant of Venice.

Early in Chris Castiglia’s gallery talk last Friday at the Palmer Museum of Art, he made clear that he wasn’t a scholar of art. So as far as commenting on the actual art—sculptures by John Rogers, the most popular sculptor of the 19th century—he wasn’t the guy.

But what Castiglia did talk about was just as fascinating. A liberal arts research professor of English, Castiglia rooted Rogers’ work in a specific time and place. Speaking specifically about Rogers’ sculptures of dramatic scenes—from Shakespearean plays and dramatic adaptations of Washington Irving’s novels—he explained that they reflected Americans’ search for a national identity after the Civil War.

One of the display cases in the museum’s exhibit, John Rogers: American Stories, is filled with sculptures depicting scenes from plays such as King Lear and an adaptation of Rip Van Winkle. Even without knowing any of the context behind them, they’re stunning. Rogers sold more than 80,000 sculptures in his career, not just because of their quality, but because he developed a nifty process to mass-produce some of his most popular works, making them affordable for regular, middle-class people.

Once Castiglia provided the context, the sculptures got even more interesting. He explained how American theatre evolved from entertainment for the elite to entertainment for the working class, why realism became the dominant literary movement in late 19th century America, and how Americans were searching for identity after the divisiveness and violence of the Civil War and during the demographic shift from small towns into cities.

In Washington Irving, Americans had an author with stature. In Edwin Booth, a noted Shakespearean actor, they had a fellow citizen who could interpret the classics as well as anyone. So when Rogers sculpted those scenes, he helped to cement the idea of an American identity.

I’m not doing the sculptures themselves justice. But the exhibit continues until May 15, so there’s plenty of time to stop by and take a look. And if you’re not busy Wednesday at lunch, you can hear voice students from the School of Music sing songs by Stephen Foster and other 19th century American composers—just the kind of songs that were played in the parlors where Rogers’ sculptures were displayed.

Lori Shontz, senior editor

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