Overall: 18 x 17 x 13 3/8 in. ( 45.7 x 43.2 x 34 cm )
signed: proper left top of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: top proper left of base: "PATENT NOV. 13TH 1888" inscribed: front of base: "POLITICS"
Rogers earned his early fame in the 1860s focusing on Civil War subjects. He did not take up current issues until decades later, when toward the end of his career he addressed recent events once again with this work, Politics. The group was released in fall of 1888 during a hotly contested presidential election campaign, as the incumbent Democrat Grover Cleveland battled the Republican candidate Benjamin Harrison. Their principal point of contention was the tariff on foreign goods coming into the United States, intended to protect domestic industry. Cleveland considered the tariff inherently unjust and advocated reducing it, while Harrison opposed a reduction. The November 6 election proved remarkably close: Cleveland won the popular vote, but Harrison won the electoral vote, giving him the victory. Rogers' composition reflects the passionate discussions that would have surrounded an evenly divided campaign. However, in contrast to his earlier Civil War groups, which treated racial and social questions with great seriousness, here he took a humorous approach, perhaps in hopes of relieving some of the tensions of the moment and offering a gently mocking critique of political passions that went so far as to divide comrades. In his composition, two men flank a table set for a friendly evening; crackers and wineglasses are set out, and the open drawer below reveals an abundance of decanters that would have amply served for a long and companionable conversation. However, the disarray of the table, with crackers scattered about and a wineglass tipped over, suggests that the discussion has grown adversarial. The two men clearly show their agitation, and Rogers' use of individual eccentricities, exaggerated expressions, and small comic passages lends an almost vaudevillian air to the scene; these variety shows in their early polite, family-friendly form had begun in New York in the early 1880s. The man on the left has his foot wrapped up, indicating that he has gout, a common ailment of the period. In his excitement he grips the arm of his chair tightly and shoots a fiery gaze at his opponent; his flamelike hair stands on end, as if echoing his ire. Across from him, the other man clasps a decanter and in his careless anger is about to tip over his companion's wineglass. He grasps his umbrella as if he has just pounded it on the floor to emphasize his point, not realizing that he has punctured his hat. His hair swirls around his head as if it is unsettled by the maelstrom of his emotional state. Between them stands the straight man or, rather, woman in the scene, who smiles gently as she places her hand over one man's mouth and her fan before the face of the other to cool their tempers. Rogers left no indication of his own political leanings with regard to the election. In the interest of reaching a broad audience, he employed his genius for combining the general and the specific, bringing the event to mind but allowing the viewer to exercise his or her own point of view. Contemporary writers were quick to recognize Rogers' commentary on the election and extend it with their own narratives; one wrote of the group's "special fitness at a time when the respective merits of the rival presidential candidates are apt to lead hot blooded partisans of each into fiery arguments, and endanger the country's safety by latter day deluges in the shape of floods of (campaign) eloquence." The New Orleans Daily Picayune guessed from the clothing and erect posture of the man on the left that he was of a military background and that his adversary was a lawyer, doctor, or merchant, concluding that they were discussing the tariff. A New Hampshire commentator agreed that the gouty man and the "bloated bond holder" were likewise debating the tariff. Rogers' attempt to reengage with the flow of the day's events was a moderate success, but it marks a moment of decline. After more than a quarter century of national popularity, his work was losing its appeal. In 1888, the year that he produced Politics, he closed his lavish showroom on Union Square in New York and reduced prices on a number of his groups, suggesting that sales were down. Politics is the last work that he patented, indicating that he was no longer concerned about imitators trying to exploit his designs. The artist formally retired five years later.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 3, New York Historical Society. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Oct. 19, 1888, p. 6. 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. 78. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.96-7. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 155, 260, 294, 296. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 206-7.
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.