Painted plaster and terracotta
Overall: 21 x 18 x 16 in. ( 53.3 x 45.7 x 40.6 cm )
signed: top front of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: front of base: "CHESS"
Board games, checkers in particular, are a recurring motif in Rogers' oeuvre. He first attempted the subject in clay in 1855 (Historic New England). Five years later he developed the composition into one of his first widely distributed groups, Checker Players (1949.276, 1936.717), a scene modeled after a painting by the English genre painter Sir David Wilkie that depicts two rural types enjoying a friendly game. In 1875 Rogers employed his greatly enhanced technical skills to create a more nuanced subject, Checkers Up at the Farm (1936.629, 1928.29), in which an older, well-to-do city dweller is bested by a simple, robust young farmer. Here Rogers visited the theme one final time in a scene that is both more and less sophisticated than his 1875 version. Two men, one older and the other younger, are playing chess, and in his sales catalogue Rogers pointed out that the position of the pieces on the board was taken from Howard Staunton's Chess Player's Companion. The artist carefully described how the bishop, king, pawn, and queen in the second row (the young man's pieces) are white, and how they would checkmate the older man's black pieces in seven moves. The young player leans back expansively and indulges in refreshment, casting a flirtatious glance at the pretty serving girl who pours a drink into his cup. His bewildered older companion leans forward, intently studying the board in search of an escape from his difficult position. Rogers and two of his sons, Alex and Derby, were avid chess players, and the incipient defeat of the elder by the younger man may well have been rooted in a father-and-son contest. In moving from checkers to chess, Roger chose a much more intellectually demanding game, and the players have been transformed from contemporary Americans to effete historic figures garbed in elaborately decorated costumes. Rogers offered his viewers no indication of what period or country the figures inhabited. One writer suggested they were colonial Americans, but the scrolling trim on their coats, their artfully frilly cravats, and the elaborate carving on their chairs, particularly that of the young man with its claw feet and griffin carved into the woodwork, suggest mid-eighteenth-century Europe. Rogers was usually careful to make the story abundantly clear to his viewers; in this case we know that the young man will win, but it is not clear why the artist removed the scene from the present time and place. It may be that Rogers was inspired by his own tableaux of scenes from popular plays to try a novel variation on a tried-and-true theme. In particular, he might have been thinking of his other creation from that year, Fighting Bob. That sculpture depicted the famous actor Joseph Jefferson playing a character from the acclaimed production The Rivals, which was set in mid-eighteenth-century England. Whatever his reasons, Chess showcases Rogers' ability to create a complex scene with remarkable realism. The game pieces were rendered in pewter so their details would remain crisp, and the delicate stream of liquid pouring from the young maid's pot illustrates Rogers' meticulous efforts to arrest time. However, it lacks the immediacy evoked by his earlier group of contemporary Americans. Without the energy of the humorous opposition between rural and urban that underlies Checkers Up at the Farm, Chess must be admired for its technical merits, but its message of youth triumphing over age has a hollow ring. It might reflect Rogers' stark view of his own prospects as his business began to slow in the face of new artistic fashions toward the end of his career.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vol. 1, New York Historical Society. Barck, Dorothy, "Rogers Group in the Museum of the New-York Historical Society", New-York Historical Society Quarterly, Vol. XVI, No. 3, October, 1932, p. 74. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.98-9. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 263, 295, 297. Holzer, Harold, and Farber, Joseph, "The Sculpture of John Rogers," Antiques Magazine, April 1970, pp. 756-768. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 210-1.
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.