Phrenology At The Fancy Dress Ball

Object Number: 
Painted plaster
Overall: 20 x 9 1/2 x 8 11/16 in. ( 50.8 x 24.1 x 22.1 cm )
signed: front of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: proper left back corner: "PATENTED SEPT 7 1886" inscribed: front of base: "PHRENOLOGY/AT THE/FANCY BALL"
Genre figure.
Gallery Label: 
Late in Rogers' career his views of everyday America evolved from generalized sentimental scenes of life passages such as courtship, marriage, or the birth of a child to more specific and increasingly nuanced subjects that investigated movements of popular culture, such as home theatricals, having one's photograph taken, and, here, the "science" of phrenology. In 1796 the German scientist Franz Joseph Gall developed the theory that a person's personality could be discerned from the shape of his or her skull. The theory gained great currency in America during the nineteenth century, inspired by the visit of advocate Dr. J. G. Spurzheim in 1832 and spurred by the brothers Lorenzo Niles Fowler and Orson Squires Fowler, who established the phrenological business and publishing house Fowler and Wells in New York City. Though phrenology gained many adherents through the mid-nineteenth century, by this period it was increasingly viewed with skepticism. Rogers was no exception to the movement's early popularity. He wrote of being examined at a phrenology lecture in Cochituate, Massachusetts, in 1848, when he was nineteen. More than twenty years later, the American Phrenological Journal published a profile and analysis of the artist: The mental and motive temperaments are well marked . . . and contribute to that activity, energy, and vivacity for which he is distinguished. The head is well built up in the crown, indicating much strength of character in the way of ambition and persistence. We would not call him a forward or pretentious man, but rather mild and forbearing. . . . The artistic and mechanical faculties are evidently large, while the rather heavy and depressed brows show those organs large which deal with the properties of matter. He is a superior judge of proportion and weight, and methodical in his arrangements, while, at the same time, his reasoning faculties appear to be large enough to give him a disposition to reflect on the origin and nature of subjects. He is probably more the thinker than the talker, and finds in his art, the most effective medium for expressing his sentiments. Rogers responded elliptically that they "made a pretty good guess" at his personal traits. His characteristic reserve and dry humor make it difficult to tell whether he admired the accuracy of the report or whether he did indeed consider it merely a "guess." However, it is likely that with this sculpture, given the lighthearted setting of a costume party and the artist's own description of the sculpture, Rogers was not endorsing the theory but, rather, gently mocking a passing fad. According to his sales catalogue, the man wearing a phrenological cap mapping the regions of the skull "is examining the bumps of his friend . . . and making fun of his supposed discoveries." The "phrenologist," dressed in a courtly costume, examines his subject's head and leans forward on tiptoe, jokingly shielding his mouth with his hand to tell his fellow partygoers (and the viewer) his conclusions in confidence. His examinee is dressed as the character Poo Bah from the popular Gilbert and Sullivan musical The Mikado, which had debuted in London the previous year and enjoyed great success in the United States, including a long and wildly successful run in New York that extended into 1886, the year that Rogers released this sculpture. The sleeve of the man's robe bears the image of the three little maids central to the plot. In referencing a humorous and farcical play, Rogers intimated that the action between the two partygoers is similarly comical. The man thusly dressed leans away, flourishing his fan and smiling warily, leaving the viewer to wonder whether he hears the phrenologist's findings and, if so, whether he finds them accurate. Phrenology at the Fancy Ball attests to Rogers' ongoing interest in theatrical amusements, not only in the form of his scenes from popular plays but also in subjects that depict amateurs, such as The Mock Trial and Private Theatricals. His fascination with everyday Americans taking on new identities and playing out their own dramas resonates strongly with his own narrative bent, and perhaps also with a wish to transcend the reserve that the Phrenological Journal hinted at, a characteristic that Rogers sometimes regretted. Identifying popular culture movements at the height of their fame is a delicate task, and Rogers may have overestimated phrenology's continued appeal, even as a comic subject. Though his sales records have not been found, it appears that Phrenology at the Fancy Ball was not popular. By 1892 Rogers had reduced the price to a mere five dollars, when most of his other works sold for ten to fifteen dollars, suggesting that it would not sell as the usual price. As a result, few were produced, making it among his rarer groups today.
Article, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 4, 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. 78. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.94-5. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 105, 253, 295, 297. Colbert, Charles, A Measure of Perfection: Phrenology and the Fine Arts in America," University of North Carolina Press, 1997, pp. 212-5. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 196-7.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group