Uncle Ned's School

Object Number: 
December 1866
Bronze with pine block and threaded bolt
Overall: 19 3/4 x 14 x 9 in. ( 50.2 x 35.6 x 22.9 cm )
signed: proper right front of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: front of base: "UNCLE NED'S SCHOOL" inscribed: back of base: "PATENTED/JULY 3rd, 1866"
Genre figure.
Gallery Label: 
This bronze served as the master model for the plasters that Rogers sold to a broad audience of middle-class Americans. In the 1860s Rogers' works addressed key social issues, and with Uncle Ned's School he took on the difficult question of freed slaves education and their future opportunities as new United States citizens. In the years after the Civil War, former slaves organized many new schools that ranged from brand-new structures to improvised classrooms in cellars or old sheds. Here Rogers showed one such informal school in his only group made up entirely of African Americans. The elderly cobbler Uncle Ned pauses in his work to assist one of his students with a question about the book that she points out to him as he leans on a ramshackle cabinet. At his feet a young boy with a tattered book open on his lap mischievously tickles the cobbler's foot with a feather. Though the girl is respectably dressed, the man and boy wear ragged, patched clothing, and all are barefoot. In depicting a cobbler and his charges without shoes of their own, Rogers pointed out their continued poverty, emphasizing the need for education to better their situation. Rogers knew that his audience would be familiar with the character of Uncle Ned from the popular 1848 Stephen Foster song of that name. In Foster's song the title character is a docile, obedient, aging slave who is blind. Rogers turned the caricature on its head by showing Uncle Ned perpetrating what would have been a crime in some Southern states when Foster's song was written: teaching a slave to read. However, the figure of the boy who has stopped studying to tease his teacher presents another stereotype that raises questions about Rogers' intentions. Does the boy represent harmless comic relief, or does he allude to concerns that African Americans lacked the determination and persistence to learn? The present-day scholar Kirk Savage has suggested that Rogers may have juxtaposed the boy and girl to pose a subtle question about which stereotype would prevail: the lazy scamp or the earnest pupil. Rogers' sales catalogues noted that the older man was "too much occupied to attend to" the boy's mischief, suggesting that Uncle Ned will not be deterred in his efforts. Uncle Ned's School was widely praised for its nuanced depiction of a momentous issue. Rogers himself considered it an important work; he exhibited the sculpture at the National Academy of Design, his first contribution in three years. A Philadelphia writer called it much better than any of his previous groups. Rogers presented a copy to the abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, who responded, "I am pleased with the complete rendering of the story, with a few means, and without exaggeration. Its simplicity is as agreeable as its errand is noble."
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 3, New York Historical Society. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Feb. 13, 1866, p. 4. "Fine Arts, National Academy of Design," The Albion, May 26, 1866, p. 249. "National Academy of Design," American Art Journal, New York, Vol. 5, June 14, 1866, p. 116. "Pictures at Earle's," The Daily Evening Bulletin Philadelphia, Sep. 7, 1866, p. 4. 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. Rimmel, Eugene, Recollections of the Paris Exhibition of 1867, London: Chapman and Hall, 1867, pp. 265-6. Wells, Samuel R., ed., "John Rogers, the Sculptor," American Phrenological Journal and Life Illustrated, Vol. 49, no. 9, September 1869, pp. 329-30. Lossing, Benson J., "The Artist as Historian," The American Historical Record, Vol. 1, no. 6, June, 1872, pp. 16, 242-4. 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. 80 Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.72-3. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 216, 285, 295, 299, 304. Craven, Wayne, Sculpture in America, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968, pp. 357-366. 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. 100-1.
Credit Line: 
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group