The Picket Guard

Object Number: 
Painted plaster with metal parts
Overall: 14 1/2 x 10 x 7 1/2 in. ( 36.8 x 25.4 x 19 cm )
signed: top front of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: front base: "THE PICKET GUARD" inscribed: back of base: "PATENTED APRIL 1 1862"
Genre figure: A plaster with metal parts sculptural group featuring a Union officer walking toward the picket line with two soldiers at his side. They are on duty and have suddenly discovered that the enemy is approaching. The officer restrains the soldier to his right from shooting while the one to his left shields his eyes. Patent # 1558: April 1, 1862
Gallery Label: 
Rogers is best known for his sculptures depicting scenes from the Civil War. The Picket Guard was his first such work, and its success launched his career. The artist modeled the subject in June 1861, just two months after the war broke out. Rogers' Unionist zeal leaps from the page of a letter he wrote to his mother shortly after Fort Sumter was surrendered in April 1861: "I feel very warlike and want to thrash the traitors." Rogers chose a subject that expresses the feelings of tension and romance that greeted the war in its early months, when it was thought the conflict would be glorious but brief. He depicted two privates and an officer on picket guard, a contingent of soldiers sent far in advance of the main encampment. Since they were most likely to encounter enemy movements first, they were at great risk of being captured, wounded, or killed, making picket duty the most hazardous an infantryman could undertake. In these dangerous circumstances, Rogers' three soldiers combine the intelligence, discipline, and fighting spirit that made up the ideal soldier. The officer at the center wears an alert expression and holds back the impulsive private to his right, who sees the enemy in the distance; his ferocious expression shows his eagerness to fight. The other private shades his eyes and attempts to get a better look. Rogers added a note of the humor that would characterize his later work by including a stolen chicken trying to escape the bag that hangs below the second private's elbow. The three are in the uniforms of Zouaves, companies modeled after the North African troops who served in the French army in the 1830s. Their uniforms, with their baggy pants, elaborately decorated jackets, and fezzes were widely recognized in the early years of the war. It has been suggested that Rogers' subject was inspired by the death of Elmer Ellsworth, the founder of the much-admired U.S. Zouave Cadets of Chicago. He was killed on May 24 while on a scouting mission in Alexandria, Virginia, and was hailed as the first martyr of the war. Where many of Rogers' later Civil War subjects would deal with humbler themes of everyday camp life, here he presented Union soldiers as heroes. The Picket Guard was widely praised not only for its subject but also for the artist's skill in rendering it. The New York Post enthused of Rogers' Civil War sculptures, and this one in particular: "they have merit besides being memorials of the great war. They show genuine genius in the artist." Periwinkle, the pseudonymous correspondent for the Springfield (Mass.) Republican, marveled at Rogers' masterful rendering: the figures hold an "attitude so tense and expression so intense, you involuntarily hold your breath, and listen with them." Though The Picket Guard is less well known today than Rogers' earlier effort The Slave Auction, it was his first great critical and commercial triumph. He placed casts at the fancy goods stores Williams & Everett in Boston and Williams & Stevens in New York. He was pleasantly surprised by brisk sales, and the managers asked what other works he had available. This success prompted the artist to revisit previous works and recast earlier subjects, while developing many more Civil War themes.
Article, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 2, 3, New York Historical Society. Unattributed Article, Fall 1861, New York Historical Society, Miscellaneous Rogers Materials, Box 6, ca. 1862. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Dec. 6, 1861, p. 2. "Literature and Art," The Home Journal, New York, Dec. 21, 1961, p.3. "Fine Arts," The Evening Post, New York, Oct. 16, 1862, p.2. The Evening Post, New York, Nov. 8, 1862, p.1. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Nov. 10, 1862, p. 2. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Dec. 1, 1862, p. 1. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, April 28, 1865, p. 2. 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. Wells, Samuel R., ed., "John Rogers, the Sculptor," American Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, New York, September, 1869, pp. 329-30. 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.64-5. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 62, 90-1, 98-9, 131, 139-40, 148, 150, 177, 185-6, 198-201, 294, 299, 301, 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. Holzer, Harold, and Farber, Joseph, "The Sculpture of John Rogers," Antiques Magazine, April 1979, pp. 756-768. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 66-9.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group