The Slave Auction
Medium: Painted plaster
Dimensions: Overall: 13 3/8 x 8 x 8 3/4 in. ( 34 x 20.3 x 22.2 cm )
Place made: North America, U.S.A., New York
Description: Tan painted plaster sculptural group featuring slave parents standing with their two children in front of the desk of an auctioneer who is selling them. The mother is trying to comfort the baby in her arms while her other child hides behind her dress.
Credit Line: Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Send to a Friend
Object Number: 1928.28
Marks: signed: center top of base: "JOHN ROGERS/NEW YORK" inscribed: front of base: "THE SLAVE AUCTION" inscribed: sign on auctioneers box: "GREAT SALE/OF/HORSES, CATTLE/NEGROES & OTHER FARMS STOCK-/THIS DAY AT/PUBLIC AUCTION"
With this small plaster John Rogers burst onto both the art world and the political scene in New York in the months leading up to the Civil War. He boldly depicted a slave auction in progress, illustrating the tragedy of a family about to be torn apart. The father stands defiantly, with arms crossed, and his wife stands on the other side of the podium. Rogers noted that he portrayed her with Caucasian features to suggest that she was of mixed race, alluding to the sexual abuse of female slaves by their masters. She tenderly holds her baby, while her other child, a toddler, hides fearfully behind her skirt. The auctioneer presides over a rostrum with a sign that describes the sale with chilling dispassion: "Great Sale/of/Horses, Cattle/Negroes & Other/Farm Stock/This Day at/Public Auction." Rogers made clear the evil being perpetrated by the auctioneer: his hair forms two curls that resemble the horns of a devil, and what appears to be a tail peeks out from the back of his coat. Rogers himself described the work most vividly: "I have got a magnificent Negro on the stand. He fairly makes a chill run over me when I look at him. . . . The auctioneer I have rather idealized . . . two little quirks of hair give the impression of horns. The woman will be more clearly white and she and the children will come in gracefully. I am entirely satisfied to stake my reputation on it."
Rogers modeled the sculpture while he was working as a draftsman for the city surveyor in Chicago. He had high hopes for the work, expecting it would be "the most powerful group I have ever made." The acclaim it earned in the Midwest inspired him to move to New York to establish himself as a professional artist. Rogers first offered it for sale at a pivotal moment, just two weeks after John Brown was executed for attempting to capture the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry in a plan to liberate slaves. Rogers tried soliciting subscriptions for his sculpture, but apparently with little success. He wrote home in dismay, "I find the times have quite headed me off, for the Slave Auction tells such a strong story that none of the stores will receive it to sell for fear of offending their Southern customers." Rogers had misjudged his audience; he was familiar with the fervent abolitionism of his New England home, and he had not counted on New York's strong commercial ties to the South, which divided the city's sympathies. Undaunted, he hired a black man to sell the group in the streets, a common means of marketing small sculpture usually practiced by Italian artisans. He attracted the attention of the abolitionist Lewis Tappan, who brought Rogers sales in antislavery circles. The abolitionist George B. Cheever wrote a flattering notice in the Independent. The plaster was acclaimed by other abolitionist publications like the National Anti-Slavery Standard and the New York Daily Tribune.
Meanwhile, Rogers developed a companion piece called The Farmer's Home (no versions are extant). Intended as a stark contrast to The Slave Auction, the group was described as follows: "The hearty, happy father, after his day's work, or on his return from the field, is seated beside his wife, with a laughing baby astride his foot [which he holds] by both hands to be tossed up and down to a tune which the father is whistling. Another frolicking fat urchin is climbing on his shoulder." A dog and kitten complete the contented image. The representation of the Northern family highlighted the injustices visited on the slave family. Rogers tried to promote the two sculptures as a pendant pair, taking them to a partner at the New York jeweler Ball and Black. The gentleman "praised them both up to the skies" but admitted that he preferred The Farmer's Home for its "more pleasing subject."
In later years The Slave Auction became an icon of Rogers' patriotism, but it was never a popular work of art. It remained in his sales catalogue until 1866, but the great rarity of surviving examples suggests that few were sold. The group has enjoyed much better fortunes in its afterlife as an image and an idea in public memory and popular culture. Ironically, the image of The Slave Auction was distributed far more widely than the work itself in the form of album photographs, stereo views, and cartes-de-visite. During Rogers' lifetime The Slave Auction was said to launch his career, and he was praised for his moral courage. By 1893 the group was legendary, as one account recalled that it "infuriated" Southerners. It was often called "Uncle Tom's Cabin in plaster," a reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe's literary indictment of slavery.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 2, 3, 4, New York Historical Society.
Unattributed Article, Fall 1861, New York Historical Society, Miscellaneous Rogers Materials, Box 6.
New York Tribune, New York, Sep. 8, 1860, p. 4.
Boston Transcript, March 25, 1862, p. 2.
The Evening Post, New York, Oct. 16, 1862, 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, Vol. 49, no. 9, 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. 78.
Smith, Mrs. and Mrs. Chetwood, Rogers Groups: Thought and Wrought by John Rogers, Boston: Charles E. Goodspeed & Co., 1934, pp.62-3.
Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 79, 81, 90, 99, 119, 148, 150, 178, 182, 197, 202,-3, 294, 299, 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.
Bourdon, David, "The story-telling statuettes of John Rogers, 19th-century people's artist, are being eagerly collected again," Smithsonian, Vol. 6, No. 2, May 1975, pp. 51-7.
Holzer, Harold, and Farber, Joseph, "The Sculpture of John Rogers," Antiques Magazine, April 1970, pp. 756-768.
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. 58-9.
Spencer, Bill, "John Rogers' Traveling Magician," Magic: The Independent Magazine for Magicians, March 2001, pp. 44-7.
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.
Lauren Lessing. "Ties That Bind: Hiram Power's Greek Slave and Nineteenth-Century Marriage." American Art 24/1 (Spring 2010): 40-65.
Holzer, Harold and The New-York Historical Society. "The Civil War in 50 Objects." New York: Viking, 2013.
Union Art Galleries, New York 1860.
National Academy of Design, 1860, Cat. No. 669.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Art and the Empire City New York 1825-1861, September 19, 2000 - January 7, 2001, Cat. No. 67.
Historical Society of the Town of Greenwich, September 27, 2004 - April 8, 2005.
New York Historical Society, Slavery in New York, October 7, 2005 - March 5, 2006.
"John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy," New-York Historical Society, September 15, 2009-March 25, 2010.