The Favored Scholar
Overall: 20 3/4 x 16 x 11 3/4 in. ( 52.7 x 40.6 x 29.8 cm )
signed: center top of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: front of desk: "OLD/Swithcum" inscribed: front of base: "THE FAVORED SCHOLAR"
During the 1870s Rogers produced a variety of genre subjects that explore the limits of sentimentality in the context of his dual goals to offer a democratic art that was widely affordable and relatable, and to produce works of fine art. Through the mid-nineteenth century, sentimental culture emphasized the expression of personal feelings among men and women and encouraged an empathetic response toward others. This culture lingered in the popular mind (if not among intellectuals) into the 1860s and 1870s. The Favored Scholar partook of this tradition by offering a scene that resonated strongly with a broad audience, though perhaps not with artistic elites. Rogers depicted a winsome young woman in simple country dress standing at her teacher's desk. This handsome man looks at her with more than scholarly interest as he answers her question about the lesson, writing on her slate. Her reciprocal attraction is clear from the lilacs she has given him, now perched on his desk. Unbeknownst to the teacher, at the girl's feet is a young prankster who has torn pages from a book and twisted them onto his ears to mimic her curls. More evidence of his mischief can be seen on the front of the teacher's desk, which is full of graffiti, including a heart that alludes to the budding romance. The press and the public enthusiastically embraced The Favored Scholar, and it quickly became one of the artist's best-selling works. Rogers' sales catalogues included explanations of the action in his groups, but they tended to offer minimal detail. He wisely allowed viewers and critics to spin their own narratives around his subjects from the visual clues that he provided. Many writers divined from the rustic desk and the girl's attire that this was a country school, lending a feeling of nostalgia for the country's (supposedly) simpler, rural past. Rogers offered an escape into that past at a moment when the country was experiencing a severe economic downturn. In a most jarring juxtaposition, a brief item in Harper's Weekly on The Favored Scholar dated March 15, 1873, is placed next to a story about an urban woman who had to send her children to school with nothing to eat because her husband had lost his job. Above all, contemporary commentators relished the scene's romantic possibilities. As one writer put it, "safe it is to say that the 'Favorite [sic] Scholar' will, some later day, advance to the mathematics of life, and be called upon to prove that one and one make one, in accordance with the rule of the wedding ring." The winning combination of the beautiful but shy young girl, the handsome and eligible man, the obstacles (difficult but eminently surmountable) inherent in their roles, and, finally, the comic relief in the form of the roguish boy offered a rich narrative that captured the hearts of many Americans. Indeed, its appeal is easy to understand today, since it contains all the elements of a successful romantic comedy. Though it may seem overly sentimental to twenty-first-century eyes, Rogers' masterful blend of romance, nostalgia, and escapism made The Favored Scholar an icon of popular culture. However, in future works he did not exploit this easy formula of playing on amorous fantasies. Rather, he turned to other subjects that touched on family life and American intellectual life, specifically literature, history, and theater.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 3, 4, New York Historical Society. Harper's Weekly, March 15, 1873, p. 207. 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.78-9. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 125, 233, 294, 304. Craven, Wayne, Sculpture in America, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968, pp. 357-366. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 138-9.
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.