The Traveling Magician
Painted ceramic and terracotta
Overall: 22 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 14 1/2 in. ( 57.2 x 39.4 x 36.8 cm )
signed: at proper right corner top of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK/ 1877" inscribed: at front of base: "THE TRAVELING MAGICIAN"
In this group Rogers touched on nineteenth-century Americans' enjoyment of puzzles and tricks. He conveyed the narrative through a dynamic pyramidal composition that spirals downward from the magician, to his audience of an older man with a boy on his knee (likely modeled after Rogers' son Charlie), to the prestidigitator's sleepy assistant (modeled after his daughter Katherine). The debonair magician has taken the older man's hat and brought forth a number of objects from it, including the gun, the wig, and the loaf of bread on his table, and he is producing his pièce de résistance, a rabbit. Rogers portrayed him as a dubious and even devilish character: the sign on his cabinet advertises him as "Mons Cheatum, the great magician," and his hair forms two curls that resemble horns. Rogers had used this device to deliver a much more serious message about the evils of slavery when he included such curls on the auctioneer in The Slave Auction of 1859, and the faces, hair, and dress of the magician and the auctioneer strongly resemble one another. Each also stands behind a rostrum with a sign explaining his enterprise. It is surprising that Rogers would borrow from such a somber subject for this lighthearted satire, but the character here lacks any malevolent intent; he simply seeks to astonish and entertain-and make a few dollars. The older man wears an expression of incredulity, holding his kerchief to his head as he puzzles over how the objects could have materialized from his hat. The boy on his knee smiles in unmitigated delight. Contemporary writers understood that the man, though a rural type, was not foolishly taken in. Rather, he was trying to figure out how the trick was accomplished. Rogers may have been thinking of the master of such trickery, the showman P. T. Barnum, whose traveling circus presented such wonders to the public as the Fee Jee mermaid. A few years before Barnum had convinced Rogers to include his sculptures in Barnum's Great Traveling World's Fair (to the artist's later dismay). Recent scholars have pointed out that Americans flocked to Barnum's shows, not with a sense of credulity, but with skepticism, and their enjoyment was derived, not from determining whether what he claimed was true, but rather how he was able to present the marvels so convincingly. In the same spirit, the boy in Rogers' sculpture may express wonderment at the magician's feat, but the man is intent on working out the mechanics behind it. The viewer's eye continues down and around the composition to the magician's assistant. Knowing the trick, she is so unimpressed that she has fallen asleep out of boredom. Rogers' sculptures were usually meant to be enjoyed from all sides and sometimes included extra details that reinforced the narrative provided by the front view. In this case, Rogers continued the compositional spiral around to the back of the sculpture to reveal an important element of the story. Behind the table a hand protrudes from between the folds of the covering ready to hand a dove to the magician. Rogers slyly revealed the trick in such a subtle way that many viewers, used to being able to grasp his stories quickly, may not have even noticed it. In fact, it appears that contemporary writers did not notice the hand, with the possible exception of one who advised that the group "will repay repeated examination and close scrutiny." Rogers, usually so forthright in telling his stories, here indulged in a bit of mischief himself, challenging his viewers to play along with the magician with the reward of discovering his trick, if they were alert and persistent.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vol. 4, 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. 80. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.86-7. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 243, 295, 304. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 164-5. Spencer, Bill, "John Rogers' Traveling Magician," Magic: The Independent Magazine for Magicians, March 2001, pp. 44-7.
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.