Faust and Marguerite: Their First Meeting

Object Number: 
Painted plaster and glass composition
Overall: 23 x 16 3/4 x 9 5/8 in. ( 58.4 x 42.5 x 24.4 cm )
signed: proper right top of base: "14 W 12 ST/JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: front of base: "FAUST AND MARGUERITE/THEIR FIRST MEETING"
Genre figure.
Gallery Label: 
Rogers' late oeuvre includes a number of scenes from popular plays of his day, among them several works of Shakespeare and Washington Irving's tale "Rip Van Winkle." In these two groups, the artist took his subject from an opera. The French composer Charles Gounod's Faust, loosely based on the novel by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, was a huge success in Paris in the 1860s, and it quickly became part of the standard international repertoire throughout the late nineteenth century. This particularly lavish production called for elaborate sets and costumes, a large chorus, and a ballet. It was such a favorite in New York that it opened the opera season every year for decades; Edith Wharton referred to the tradition in her novel The Age of Innocence. Rogers chose three moments in the early acts of the play that show the budding romance between Faust and Marguerite. Faust, an aging and disillusioned scholar, bargains with the devil Mephistopheles for the opportunity to experience all things in exchange for his soul. Transformed into a handsome young man, he pursues the lovely Marguerite. The opening group of the series depicts the end of act 2. Titled Their First Meeting, it shows Faust offering his arm to Marguerite, who shrinks back modestly. The prayer beads hanging from her waist attest to her piety. In his sales catalogue Rogers reproduced their dialogue from Bayard Taylor's 1870 translation of the opera. The newly young suitor greets her, saying, "Fair lady, may I thus make free / To offer you my arm and company?" She responds austerely, "I am no lady, am not fair / Can without escort home repair." As Rogers did with the Rip Van Winkle series, here he created a simple composition for each group, intending that the three together would form a unified and more complex whole. In the second group of the series, Marguerite and Martha: Trying on the Jewels, Faust, with Mephistopheles' help, has left a casket of jewels at Marguerite's door. She tries them on in the company of her old guardian Martha, admiring their effect on her appearance in a hand mirror. In the opera, the young woman expresses her rapture over the beauty of these ornaments with a famous aria known as "The Jewel Song." For whatever reason, Rogers neither advertised this group nor included it in his sales catalogues, though it is referred to in at least one contemporary newspaper. It is difficult to understand why the artist downplayed the middle group of his series, particularly one that referenced a well-known and beloved moment in a vastly popular opera. Whatever his reasons, very few versions were sold, and it is now one of his rarest groups (in fact, the N-YHS does not own a copy of it). The final group shows Faust triumphant at the end of act 3. He has come to Marguerite's garden, and, after she plays a flirtatious game of "I love thee, I love thee not" with her flowers, she confesses her affection and allows Faust to kiss her. They part, but it is clear that Faust's seduction will succeed. In Rogers' composition both engage equally in high coquetry: Faust kisses her hand with a longing look, and she accepts his advances with a feigned shyness that is belied by her outstretched hand and tilted head. As Rogers did with groups taken from the stage, he included an architectural element that suggests a set piece. Marguerite processes up a partial staircase with richly scrolling ironwork; leaves and foliage below hint at the garden where their tryst takes place. Rogers ended his series on this romantic note, but his audience would have been well aware of the grimmer scenes that followed. Faust impregnates Marguerite and abandons her. She then kills her child and as a result is to be hanged. In a rather thin version of a happy ending, Marguerite rejects Mephistopheles' offer of rescue from execution. As she mounts the scaffold, a chorus of angels announces that she is saved and will find the reward for her virtue in heaven. The series was created at a time when Rogers' sales were declining and he was developing a tremor in his hand that would soon end his career. They are among his final works.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vol. 1, 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. 74. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.98-9. Baker, Charles E., "John Rogers As He Depicted American Literature," American Collector, Vol. 13, No. 10, pp. 10-1, 16. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 109, 266-7, 295. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 216-7.
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Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group