Union Refugees

Object Number: 
Painted plaster or terracotta
Overall: 22 1/2 x 12 1/2 x 11 in. ( 57.2 x 31.8 x 27.9 cm )
signed: top front of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: back of base: "PATENTED APRIL 19, 1864" inscribed: front of base: "UNION REFUGEES"
Genre figure.
Gallery Label: 
Union Refugees marked a turning point in Rogers' career. Since his 1859 return from study in Europe, he had debated which material to use for his sculptures: plaster, which was less expensive but disdained by the art establishment; or bronze, which, though considered a more elevated medium, was far more expensive both to produce and to sell. After lamenting the cost for several months, Rogers joyfully received an 1863 New Year's gift of $500 from his Uncle Henry Bromfield Rogers that allowed him to make Union Refugees his first bronze cast. Rogers chose spelter, a type of patinated zinc that was cheaper than bronze and therefore could be priced more affordably. The first casts were available for sale by late July, and he offered the sculptures for $60. It is not clear how many orders he received, but since the metal casts are now extremely rare, they probably did not sell well. By August he had decided to return to plaster, writing to his mother, "it is a weight off my mind & in spite of all the trouble I have had with plaster, I feel as I should on coming home from a long tiresome journey." Union Refugees proved extremely popular as a plaster, priced at $15. However, Rogers did not give up bronzes entirely. He complained that reproducing copies from the original (master) plaster wore the original down over time, and he had to create new master plasters frequently. Casting a master in bronze gave Rogers a model that would not only not wear down but would retain its crisp detail. It also allowed Rogers to make his groups much larger: Union Refugees measures twenty-two inches tall, versus the nine-to-fourteen-inch height of his earlier sculptures. The bronze master model permitted Rogers to work in a larger scale with enhanced detail and quality, and his sales increased as a consequence. Rogers chose a particularly evocative subject for this pivotal work, his first to show the war's traumatic effect on civilians. Union Refugees depicts a Southern Unionist family fleeing to the North. The father stands with a resolute expression with a small bundle of belongings hanging from his gun that suggests all the family has left behind. His wife leans against him mournfully, and their son attempts to comfort her with a small bouquet of wildflowers. Rogers told the sad tale by drawing the eye in an arc from the man's gun, with its implied force, carefully balanced on his shoulder, to his stern face, to his wife's distress, to the puzzled and anxious boy who has not yet realized that he has lost his home. The artist began work in the months just after the announcement of the Emancipation Proclamation, and this Unionist family's rejection of Southern proslavery views would have had a particularly keen resonance with his Northern viewers. Union Refugees was a critical as well as a commercial success. Rogers displayed the sculpture at the National Academy of Design in 1863 to uniform acclaim. Praise resounded for the patriotic theme and for Rogers' technical skill in depicting it. The New York Commercial Advertiser proclaimed that the sculpture would "deservedly attract attention not just for its subject, but also for its high merit as a work of art." The Springfield Republican called it a masterpiece. Rogers' sculpture was often mentioned in connection with John Quincy Adams Ward's The Freedman (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), a similarly sized bronze of a freed slave displayed at the same National Academy annual exhibition. The classicized pose and heroic proportions of the black man contemplating his liberty would have made a striking pendant to the white family forced to leave their home for their Unionist views. Rogers heroized the loyalty and sacrifices required of Union civilians, not just soldiers, and perhaps reminded his viewers that sacrifices might be required of them as well.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, New York Historical Society. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Jan. 16, 1863, p. 1. Boston Evening Transcript, Jan. 16, 1863, p. 1. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, Jan. 20, 1863, p. 2. "Fine Arts," The Albion, New York, Vol. 41, No. 19, May 9, 1863, pp. 225-6. "Visit to the National Academy of Design," The Continental Monthly: Devoted to Literature and National Policy, Vol. III, No. VI, June, 1863, p. 718. "Fine Arts," The Independent, June 11, 1863, p. 6. Curtis, George William, "Editor's Easy Chair," Harper's New Monthly Magazine, Vol. 27, June 1863. "The National Academy of Design," The New York Times, New York, June 24, 1863, p. 2. "Fine Arts," The Evening Post, New York, July 7, 1863, p.2. "Fine Arts," The Evening Post, New York, Nov. 24, 1863, p.2. "Sketches of American Artists: Church, Bierstadt, Kensett, Gifford, Inness, Rogers, Story and Ward," The Evening Post, New York, June 25, 1864, 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. 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.68-9. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 95, 99-101, 105, 148, 150, 207-9, 287-8, 294, 296-9, 304. Craven, Wayne, Sculpture in America, New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1968, pp. 357-366. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 80-3. Clapper, Michael, "Reconstructing a Family: John Rogers's Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations," Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 39, No. 4, Winter 2004, pp. 259-78.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group