The art of authenticity -- right down to shoelaces

Every age has its popular art which, in addition to being attractive and generally extremely well done, reflects the values and sentiments of a cross section of the population.

This kind of art often has a charming innocence, a feeling that recently departed times were more pleasant and wholesome than one's own. Thus in our day we have had Norman Rockwell's account of the pleasures and escapades of small-town America, those of an earlier period had Currier and Ive's recounting of the delights of rural life, and Victorian Americans had John Roger's delightfully romanticized retelling of mortal tales and local folklore.

The latter consisted of small, often quite complex sculptural groups of figures modeled in clay and reproduced in large numbers in soft gray plaster. As a rule they portrayed social, political, historical, religious, theatrical, and mythical scenes -- often in the guise of small-town and rural-life America. They sold extremely well at an average price of $14, and brought exact copies of good popular sculpture into many Victorian parlors.

A large number of these sculptural groups -- handsomely displayed and dramatically lighted -- are now on view here at the New York Historical Society.

It's a fascinating exhibition, not because these groups are great art (which they are not), but because they are so lovingly and exquisitely done and because they so clearly illuminate the tastes of our Victorian forebears -- and because they clue us in to both the strengths and weaknesses of popular art.

John Rogers was born in 1829 in Salem, Mass. Although he had done some work in clay in his early 20s, he didn't begin to work toward a professional career in art until after his return in 1859 from Europe, where he had gone to study sculpture.

He set up shop in New York and launched his career with "The Slave Auction," which, however, did not sell well. He followed this up with "Checker Players," which had a modest success, and then with several other pieces, all of which sold quite poorly. It wasn't until the critics hailed his sentimental "The Fairy's Whisper" that he began to feel secure in his ambition to mass-produce plaster copies of his sculptural groups.

The Civil War provided him with many subjects Prominent among these were "Council of War" (with Lincoln, Grant, and Stanton in conference), "Union Refugees," "The Picket Guard," and "Mail Day."

From the end of the war to the 1890s, Rogers focues his attention on American small town and rural life. These sold extremely well. In fact it has been estimated that he sold roughly 80,000 groups between 1860 and 1893.

But by the time he produced his last work, "The Landing of the Norsemen" in 1893, public taste had shifted, and by the end of his life 11 year later, he public and deserted him altogether.

Out of fashion, discarded, and even ridiculed, his groups crumbled and disappeared. Only a few copies of his works remain today, but, with the irony so often found in the art market, these few remaining pieces once again are very much in demand -- but this time at prices only the well-to-do can afford.

Probably the most remakable thing about these groups is their extraordinary attention to detail. Every item of clothing, furniture, equipment, or household decoration portrayed is not only absolutely authentic, but is authentically rendered, down to the smallest wrinkled (of clothing or skin), buckle, shoelace, etc. Every detail is exquisitely "finished": shoelaces are carefully tied and hang irregularly,. buttons are precisely delineated, lace looks like lace and wood like wood -- although both are actually plaster.

In a Rogers group everything has been taken into account, and one feels certain these pieces were admired in their day not only for their noble sentiments and nostalgic peeks into the past, but for the fact the artist had spared neither time nor labor in guaranteeing this total physical authenticity.

The two things never tolerated in popular art are sloppy workmanship and inattention to authenticating detail.The only indication some recognize that something is indeed a work of art is its high level of craftmanship and its overwhelming "realness.c A Victorian customer would not accept something as art which didn't represent impressive workmanship, or which looked as if Aunt Bessie could have done it. Art had to be difficult to do and be realistically convincing.

Rogers scored high on both points. The craftsmanship in these groups is startling, both in it delicacy and in its thoroughness. Nothing, no matter how small, is ignored.

In "Courtship at Sleepy Hollow," for instance, Rogers went to a great deal of extra trouble to make certain that both the young man and the young woman look their very best. When we consider that this piece was originally done in fragile clay and then reproduced in equally fragile plaster, and that it is only 16 1/2 inches high, we can get some idea of how carefully and lovingly Rogers worked.

The same is true of "A Frolic at the Old Homestead," in which every detail, from granny's eyeglasses to her footstool, is precisely rendered.Even the old lady's ball of yarn balances precariously on her knee. And we know also that her shawl is a warm one, if for no other reason than that anyone with her practical, down-to-earth look would not waste her time on something merely decorative.

While this attention to detail may seem totally beside the point of art to many people today, it wasn't so as far as Rogers and his collectors were concerned. To that day and age, surface richness and careful attention to detail were considered essential to art. Life itself was the standard against which such art was judged. And within that context, Rogers did very well indeed.

To our taste these sculptural groups may appear fussy and overly sentimental -- even trivial. But viewed with an open eye and mind, we have to be impressed by what Rogers managed to do in these 87 pieces. And if we give ourselves a chance, we will possibly even be able to see in them something of the magic they brought to American homes during the last half of the 19th century.

John Rogers may not have been a great sculptor, but he was very good at what he did. I, for one, thoroughly enjoyed myself at this New York Historical Society showing of his works.

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