The Camp Fire: Making Friends with the Cook

Object Number: 
January 1862
Painted plaster with lead parts
Overall: 12 x 11 1/4 x 7 3/8 in. ( 30.5 x 28.6 x 18.7 cm )
signed: center top of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: front of base: "THE CAMPFIRE/MAKING FRIENDS WITH THE COOK"
Genre figure.
Gallery Label: 
In this work, one of Rogers' well-known depictions of camp life during the Civil War, a soldier sits near the fire reading the newspaper to an African American cook who is dressed in ragged clothes, including one shoe and one boot. He leans toward the soldier with an obliging smile. Rogers described the scene in very general terms: "A soldier is reading the newspaper to the cook and trying to make friends with him, so as to warm himself and get some choice bits from the kettle over the fire." The Camp Fire: Making Friends with the Cook seems innocently to address a lighthearted incident of camp life, but its simplicity is deceptive. In it Rogers addressed troubling issues of race relations during the Civil War. Rogers knew that the African American cook would be interpreted as a contraband. The term came into wide circulation in 1862 in reference to Southern slaves escaping to the Union lines. According to the modern scholar Kirk Savage, technically the "confiscated property" of the Union army, contrabands like Rogers' cook were at the same time poised on the threshold of freedom and citizenship. Though much less well known today than it was then, The Camp Fire remains a subtle study in contrast and interconnection. There are the obvious comic contrasts, between the distant gaze of the illiterate cook, musing with pleasure over the story he hears, and the animated focus of the soldier reading aloud, their differences of class and race reinforced by the cook's sturdy posture, bare head, and mismatched shoes. Yet Rogers does not descend into caricature. In a sly move, he reverses the familiar pairing of crouching slave and standing master or savior so familiar from abolitionist imagery and avoids its racialized polarity of passive black victim and active white agent. Rogers would address such issues overtly in a more striking role reversal a few years later by showing an African American rescuing an injured soldier in Wounded Scout: A Friend in the Swamp (1936.655, 1940.844).
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 2, 3, New York Historical Society. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, March 25, 1862, p. 2. "Fine Arts." The Evening Post, New York, Oct. 16, 1862, p. 2. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Dec. 1, 1862, p. 1. Tuckerman, Henry T., Book of the Artists, American Artist Life, Comprising Biographical and Critical Sketches of American Artists: Preceded by an Historical Account of the Rise and Progress of Art in America, New York: P. Putnam & Son, 1867, pp. 595-7. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.64-5. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 91, 99, 148-9, 202, 295, 299, 304. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 78-9.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Miss Katherine Rebecca Rogers
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group