Ichabod Crane and the "Headless Horseman"

Object Number: 
December 1887
Overall: 35 x 48 x 29 in. ( 88.9 x 121.9 x 73.7 cm )
signed: proper right front corner: "JOHN ROGERS./NEW YORK/1887" inscribed: across front of base: "ICHABOD CRANE AND THE "HEADLESS HORSEMAN"
A bronze sculptural group featuring a scene from Washington Irving's tale "A Legend of Sleepy Hollow" in which two horses gallop in opposite directions. A headless man covered by a cape rides on the horse at back, and Ichabod rides on the horse at front, grasping its neck in an attempt to regain his balance and evade the horseman.
Gallery Label: 
By the late 1880s Rogers had enjoyed more than twenty-five years of popular and critical success and had issued over sixty small plaster groups. However, as his sales slowed, the artist began to sense that tastes were changing. He commented, "I begin to think that the public is tiring of this style of art. Accordingly I have turned my attention to more important work." Rogers branched out into large-scale sculpture, including the life-size equestrian bronze of General John Fulton Reynolds of 1884 that still stands outside Philadelphia's City Hall. Experimenting with yet another format, Rogers created this sculpture at one-third life size, inhabiting the middle ground between the domesticated humor and pathos of his plaster groups and the stern gravitas of the public statue of Fulton. Rogers intended the sculpture for public spaces either indoors or outdoors, such as lobbies, libraries, or parks. He chose a subject that had proven successful in the past, an episode from Washington Irving's "Legend of Sleepy Hollow." Nearly twenty years earlier he had produced Courtship in Sleepy Hollow (1947.146, 1926.33, 1950.79), a comic scene of the awkward Ichabod Crane wooing a bemused Katrina Van Tassel. Working in a much larger scale inspired Rogers to take on a more ambitious subject, the moment when Crane encounters the Headless Horseman, whose frightening tale he has heard from his rival suitor Brom Bones. The scene gave Rogers the opportunity to showcase his famous mastery of equine anatomy; in the previous decades he had included horses in several of his subjects, to much acclaim. Here the two horses pass close by one another; their flying manes and tails give a sense of their speed, and bring to life the flashing terror of Crane's sudden encounter with the ghost. The shaggy texture of Crane's horse shows it to be a nag, reminding the viewer of his poverty, whereas the other horse has a smooth, well-cared-for coat. Crane is almost unseated by his fright, and his hat has fallen to the ground. The fingers of his left hand dig into the horse's neck, and the veins of his hand [?] stand out, showing his strain as he leans back, his eyes bulging. The other rider sits confidently upright in the saddle and menaces Crane with the surrogate for his lost head, a pumpkin carved into a grim expression and wearing a hat. Rogers' work rewards careful observation, and a close look at the Headless Horseman reveals a man's face peering from beneath his cloak. Though Irving only hinted that Brom Bones posed as the Headless Horseman to frighten Crane away and win Katrina Van Tassel, Rogers left no doubt. The sculpture represents several departures in Rogers' oeuvre: a large-scale work, a bronze, a limited-edition subject that was intended for public display, and a work meant for display in the round in a sizable space. Though his plasters usually include details that allow for profitable viewing from the back and sides, in this work the viewer must circumnavigate the piece to see the two men's faces and to fully understand the story. In this way, Rogers created a sense of monumentality that is somewhat at odds with its comic, illustrational subject. The sculpture earned critical praise that was all the more satisfying for an aging artist whose work was being superseded by new artistic trends. When it was displayed at the National Academy of Design in the fall of 1887, the New York Herald thought it excellent. However, when it was exhibited in Boston, the Daily Evening Transcript pointed out the disjunction between its size and medium and its lighthearted subject, noting, "Although such a topic is ungrateful for sculptural treatment, a good deal of ingenuity has been displayed in the composition." Though it is a remarkably accomplished and imaginative work, Rogers may have uncharacteristically misjudged public taste. He was unable to move from the broad market for his plasters for private homes into the different arena for public sculptures. He priced the work at $1,500, not an unreasonable cost, but literally a hundred times that of his small plasters. There are no records of any orders for the bronze, making it a rare thing in his oeuvre: a one-of-a-kind group now little known and rarely seen.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 2, 3, New York Historical Society. "Art Notes," Daily Evening Transcript, March 31, 1888, p. 2 "The Fine Arts," Daily Evening Transcript, April 4, 1888, p. 7. 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. 119, 159, 161-2, 255, 296. Craven, Wayne, Sculpture in America, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968, pp. 357-366.
Credit Line: 
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group