"You Are A Spirit, I Know: When Did You Die?"

Object Number: 
Painted plaster
Overall: 18 3/8 x 19 1/8 x 14 3/8 in. ( 46.7 x 48.6 x 36.5 cm )
signed: at proper right corner of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK/1885" inscribed: at front of base: "KING LEAR, KENT, THE DOCTOR/CORDELIA/...YOU ARE A SPIRIT I KNOW/WHEN DID YOU DIE?"
Theatrical figure.
Gallery Label: 
Rogers contemplated the plays of Shakespeare as a potential subject from the earliest years of his professional career. In 1861 he wrote of his plans for a series, and he assayed a handful of such themes into 1862, including one titled The Merchant of Venice, which he showed at the National Academy of Design (to his dismay, it went unnoticed). No examples of these early groups survive. Nearly twenty years passed before the Bard resurfaced in the artist's work. Rogers created an acclaimed series of groups that includes "Is It So Nominated in the Bond?" (1936.659, 1926.37) from The Merchant of Venice; The Wrestlers (1936.645, 1926.37) from As You Like It; "Ha! I Like Not That" (1936.658, 1929.108) from Othello; and this work, "You Are a Spirit, I Know: When Did You Die?" (1936.646, 1932.99, 1948.413) from King Lear. The play was suppressed in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries; the portrayal of a mad monarch was considered inflammatory during the rule of George III, who suffered from mental illness. Later, it appeared regularly on the New York stage in the late 1870s and early 1880s. However, it was not performed as frequently as the perennial favorites As You Like It, Romeo and Juliet, and The Merchant of Venice. Rogers made an unusual choice in selecting a scene from one of Shakespeare's less popular plays and, in particular, one of his most searing tragedies. In a rectangular stagelike space, Lear reclines on a couch wearing a fur-trimmed robe that echoes the remarkable bearskin draped over the headboard. Its sightless eyes goggle at the viewer from the side in what might be an eerie allusion to Lear's deranged mental state. In act 4, scene 7, after being stripped of his wealth and power through the betrayal of his scheming daughters Goneril and Regan, the king has wandered over the stormy heath, near the edge of insanity. He has been led to shelter under the protection of the Earl of Kent, who is disguised as a servant, and now he awakes to see the loving daughter Cordelia, whom he himself betrayed. Lear seems uncertain of his sanity or even whether he is alive, saying, "You do me wrong to take me out o' the grave." He props himself up on his couch with one arm behind him and other hovering in midair as he reaches out to touch her in disbelief. His unkingly pose suggests his fragile state as the words leave his lips. He rightly expects Cordelia to be angry with him, but she leans forward to reassure him both that she lives and that she forgives him. Their shared gazes meet at the center of the composition. They are framed by the figures of the Earl of Kent, still disguised as a servant, and the doctor, who leans back skeptically stroking his beard, trying to assess Lear's mental state. Rogers showed restraint in realistically conveying the intensity of the moment without an overdependence on melodrama. When compared with his humorous burlesques such as the sly humor and coquetry of The Mock Trial: Argument for the Prosecution (1950.222, 1929.114), expressions here show genuine feeling with a modern sense of understatement in an intimate moment. The artist chose a moment of reunion and redemption, but, as most of his viewers knew, shortly after this, both characters die, making this one of the few Rogers Groups without a happy ending. "You Are a Spirit, I Know" was released the same year as "Why Don't You Speak for Yourself, John?" (1936.660, 1926.36, 1958.14a) from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's popular Pilgrim romance The Courtship of Miles Standish. That lighthearted subject proved a best seller and a more attractive alternative to the somber scene from King Lear, a departure that his audience was not prepared to embrace. Rogers continued this trajectory later into his career, producing historical subjects and attempting to secure commissions for monuments with mixed success.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vol. 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. 76. Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.92-3. Baker, Charles E., "John Rogers As He Depicted American Literature," American Collector, Vol. 13, No. 10, pp. 10-1, 16. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 109, 252, 295. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 192-3.
Credit Line: 
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group