The Fugitive's Story

Object Number: 
Painted plaster
Overall: 21 3/4 x 14 1/2 x 11 in. ( 55.2 x 36.8 x 27.9 cm )
inscribed: proper right top back corner: "PATENTED/ SEPT...1869" inscribed: front of base: "THE FUGITIVE'S STORY/JOHN C. WHITTIER HW BEECH.. W. LLOYD GARRISON"
Genre figure: This sculptural group in painted plaster depicts three of the most prominent leaders in the anti-slavery movement--poet John Greenleaf Whittier, Brooklyn clergyman Henry Ward Beecher (brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe) and the editor of the Boston abolitionist newspaper the "Liberator" William Lloyd Garrison-- grouped around a small desk, listening intently to a young mother with an infant in her arms telling of her daring escape from slavery. Patent # 3657: September 7 1869
Gallery Label: 
Rogers built his early fame on his Civil War subjects, and after the conflict ended, he produced a few final groups memorializing some of its most important figures. The Council of War (1952.334, 1925.42, 1936.657) depicts its highest military officials: General Ulysses S. Grant, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, and President Abraham Lincoln. In The Fugitive's Story Rogers paid tribute to leaders of the abolitionist movement: the poet John Greenleaf Whittier, the editor William Lloyd Garrison, and the preacher Henry Ward Beecher. Rogers' biographer, David Wallace, called it a "civilian counterpart" to The Council of War. The artist's last Civil War subject, The Fugitive's Story offered a perfect bookend to his acclaimed series, returning as it did to his beginnings. Rogers' first Civil War-related subject was The Slave Auction of 1859 (1928.28), which condemned the evils of slavery in the days leading up to the war, and his last Civil War group memorialized the triumph of the abolitionist cause. The three men are gathered around a desk listening to the tale of a slave who has escaped to the North with her baby. A small bundle containing her worldly possessions lies at her feet, and she clasps her child to her shoulder. Her head is inclined toward Garrison, seated at his desk, and all three men gaze at her with expressions of deep interest and concern, likewise drawing the viewer's eye to her earnest face. Whittier (at left) and Garrison (at right) hold papers that suggest their role as writers in the fight against slavery; Rogers further emphasizes the point with the inkpot and papers on Garrison's desk. The artist often incorporated portraits into his narrative groups, but this is the only instance in which he inscribed the names of the sitters on the base to make his subject perfectly clear. The story reportedly had a powerful effect on the former slave Sojourner Truth: the abolitionist newspaper the Independent reported that when she saw the work, she burst into tears, remembering her own escape with her small child. Rogers' own convictions about abolition are evidenced in the time and care that he took preparing the group, and in his later memories of it. The artist wrote to Beecher and secured his enthusiastic approval for the idea. He interviewed each of his three sitters and took detailed measurements, secured photographs, and even took life masks of Beecher and Garrison. Both men wrote to Rogers with suggestions for the composition and for his portrayals of them. There were reports from all three that they were satisfied with the likenesses; Garrison called the sculpture "a marked success, both in regard to the likenesses and as a work of art." William Cullen Bryant wrote to Rogers in relation to The Fugitive's Story, "You have succeeded in a higher degree than almost any artist in making sculpture a narrative art." Public reaction was equally enthusiastic, and critics were quick to connect this valedictory work with Rogers' humble The Slave Auction of little more than a decade earlier, when he could not induce stores to carry the sculpture for fear of offending their Southern customers. The subject apparently had strong poetic resonances for his viewers. Rogers was compared to Whittier, the poet he portrayed, with one commentator declaring, "What Whittier is in verse Rogers is in sculpture." The Boston Advertiser called the group "a perfect poem of our history." Yet another writer connected it with efforts to establish a colony for former slaves in Liberia, in western Africa, writing a poem from the point of view of the fugitive as a wife looking forward to a reunion with her husband, who was preparing a home for them there. Rogers considered The Fugitive's Story an important landmark in his oeuvre. Nearly twenty years later, in an 1887 interview for the New York Herald, Rogers related tales of his time with Beecher and Garrison preparing for this work, and in an 1890 article that Rogers authored for the New York Times, he wrote at length about his process in developing the sculpture, quoting his correspondence with Whittier and Garrison. He may well have been indirectly promoting a more recent work, a figure of Beecher that he created from the life mask, photographs, and measurements that he used for The Fugitive's Story as a memorial when Beecher died in 1887 (1937.35).
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, New York Historical Society. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, May 16, 1971, n.p. The Evening Post, New York, Dec. 21, 1873, p. 1. 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. 76. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp. 74-5. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 108, 111, 126, 135, 150, 221-3, 256, 275-6, 278, 286-7, 294, 304. Craven, Wayne, Sculpture in America, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968, pp. 357-366. Wallace, David H., "The Art of John Rogers: So Real and So True," American Art Journal, November 1972, pp. 59-70. Boime, Albert, The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century, Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990, pp. 104-5, 188-99, 232, 238. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 116-7.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group