We Boys

Object Number: 
May 14, 1872
Overall: 17 x 16 1/4 x 8 in. ( 43.2 x 41.3 x 20.3 cm )
signed: proper left back of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: back of base: "14 W 12ST/PATENT MAY 14 1872" inscribed: front of base: "WE BOYS"
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. We Boys is the first of several groups that demonstrate the artist's long-standing interest in horses; Rogers had written to his mother twelve years before, in 1860, "I want to make studies of animals and horses particularly." He took detailed measurements of a variety of horses, and two years after releasing this sculpture, he displayed studies of equine anatomy at the National Academy of Design. He also studied Eadweard Muybrudge's pioneering photographs of horses in motion. He went on to produce a number of other sculptures in which horses figure prominently, most notably a life-size equestrian monument to the Civil War general John F. Reynolds. Rogers' mastery served him in good stead with We Boys, in which the animal is as important to the action as the humans are. Rogers' catalogue describes how "The boys have brought the horse to the brook. While he has been drinking, the boy who drove him lost the reins, and is trying to regain them with his stick, but is alarmed at the threatening action of the horse, which is turning his head to bite, as he is irritated by the other boy, who is trying to climb on his back, and is pulling himself up by the horse-blanket." Rogers took as his models two neighbor boys near his New Canaan, Connecticut, home, James E. and Joseph M. Silliman. Although the boys are charming in their childlike poses, they are less detailed than Rogers' other figures from this period. Instead, the artist lavished extra care on the horse: its musculature is carefully developed, and the ridges around his nostrils indicate that he is snorting, giving him a vivid sense of action and even personality. Many commentators, familiar with equine behavior, noted that the horse's ears are laid back, indicating its disapproval of the shifting burdens on its back. The horse serves as an authority figure preparing to check the boys' mischief, suggesting the complex relationships that could develop between people and horses who were in daily contact, as was common on the farm and even in the city before the advent of the automobile. Some contemporary writers enjoyed We Boys as a simple scene of country life, but others understood it in nostalgic terms. It was called "a pleasant reminder of the childhood of many a man." One writer spoke directly to his readers: "it is more to you than pretty because you have been there yourself and know all about it." A Mrs. Mary E. Nealy was moved to write a poem based on the sculpture about important men looking back on their humble beginnings, opening with "O happy time of youthful joys! / When you and I were just 'we boys,' / When manhood's sober dignity / Dimmed not life's silver with alloys." The sculpture could be seen as an escape from the cares and complexities of modern life to the simple pleasures of childhood; indeed, Rogers remembered his own youthful years in the country with great fondness. Rogers created two versions of the sculpture. In the more commonly found version the horse's head is down, whereas in the rarer version its head is up and turned back in a more threatening aspect. The Boston Daily Evening Transcript pointed out "the ominous look his [the horse's] eyes have as he rolls them back," even in the more frequently encountered type. Perhaps this gesture of equine annoyance seemed amusing when its head was down, but moving the horse's head back toward the boys may have presented enough of a danger to break the spell of nostalgia. Few copies of the second type survive, suggesting that it sold poorly.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 3, 4, New York Historical Society. Daily Evening Transcript, Boston, May 11, 1872, p. 2. 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.80-1. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 114, 119, 132-3, 228, 230-1, 294, 301, 304. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 132-5.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Miss Katherine Rebecca Rogers
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group