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For Sale to the Highest Bidder

The Slave Auction, Sculpture by John Rogers, 1859

PAINTERS LIKE EASTMAN JOHNSON MIGHT GENERATE CONFLICTING responses to their ambiguous work. However, there was no mistaking the intentions of John Rogers’s mass-produced plaster sculptural group The Slave Auction, which reached the public in 1859, the same tumultuous year as Negro Life at the South. The rigidly posed and rather homely piece has lost much of the power it held over audiences in the months leading up to the Civil War. But in its day, it was clearly meant to provoke—at a time when Northern abolitionists and Southern fire-eaters were furiously busy provoking each other.

Rogers (1829–1904) was an ambitious and entrepreneurial artist who developed a genius for imagining and mass-producing scenes and subjects—even controversial ones—in forms customers found suitable for display in their homes. In this regard, his works became the three-dimensional analogues of the wildly popular lithographs of Currier & Ives, which also alternated between sentimental and politically charged subjects. With The Slave Auction—one of the first of the plaster casts that came to be known as Rogers Groups—the sculptor dramatically launched himself as an artist to be reckoned with. “I think it will be [by] far the most powerful group I have ever made,” he predicted in October 1859, when he moved to New York to cast the work. That month, of course, John Brown conducted his raid on Harpers Ferry—and Rogers’s work took on new urgency and, for some, new drawbacks. “I have got a magnificent negro on the stand,” Rogers wrote, describing the portraiture in the final design. “He fairly makes a chill run over me when I look at him.…The auctioneer I have rather idealized and made such a wicked face that Old Nick himself might be proud of it—two little quirks of hair give the impression of horns. The woman will be as more nearly white and she and the children will come in gracefully. I am entirely satisfied to stake my reputation on it and imagine the present excitement on the subject will give it great popularity.”

PLATE 4–1

Though the final plaster indeed won immediate praise from antislavery critics, the work failed to find many customers, however hard Rogers labored to market it. He invited friends to examine and comment on his preliminary model “in order to make any alterations that might strike them before it is too late”—a method the art historian Michael Leja has called a “primitive form of the focus group.” Rogers admitted in frustration, “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.” As an alternative, Rogers hit upon the ingenious idea of pushcart marketing—selling copies on the street—retaining a man he described as “a good looking negro to carry them around on a sort of tray, with an appropriate notice printed on the front.” Fortuitously, the African American salesman encountered the New York abolitionist Lewis Tappan, who immediately bought one of the first copies and even recommended other likely customers. But Rogers quickly came to realize that the group’s “strong story” still proscribed its appeal in the divided city of New York.

In abolition-minded Boston, moreover, Rogers hurt his chances to earn significant royalties in a more sympathetic community when he resisted the idea of raising the sculpture’s selling price. “I think it is going to take,” he predicted, “and I expect to make a good profit at $1.50. I want them to go off and be popular even at a present sacrifice so as to have them scattered round and be known.” A Boston shop set the price high anyway, but when the proprietor tried to hike it again, Rogers put his foot down. “You know that they are not intended for rich people’s parlors, but for the more common houses in the country,” the sculptor insisted. “The abolitionists here have advised me to put them at $3.00 and many think that is too high. As I want them popular, they must be put low or else nobody but the rich will buy them and they would not want them in their parlors.…Large sales and small profits is the motto I must stick to.”

In the end, this particular group generated neither. “I sell less of it than almost any other group,” he finally reported. Critical acclaim did come his way. An abolitionist Chicago paper lauded the piece as “a work of genius,” predicting of Rogers: “He and his work will be heard of hereafter.” The National Anti-Slavery Standard raved: “If the primary object of Art were ornament merely, this group might be objected to on account of the painfulness of its subject; but if moral instruction be one of its legitimate offices, the work is certainly worthy of the highest commendation.” But popularity for this particular group never materialized. It may have sold no more than thirty casts altogether. Perhaps the scene depicted in The Slave Auction seemed too barbaric to qualify as decoration, even if the Independent heartily recommended it as “worth a thousand of the commonplace, classical, and comparatively costly pieces of household ornament and art, that everywhere meet the eye.” Most white homeowners, even those committed to the fight against slavery, were not yet ready to adorn their sitting rooms with images of suffering people of color. And there was no mistaking the fact that this sculpture was intended to horrify, not just enhance a parlor.

Idealized or not, it was certainly based on reality—and perhaps motivated by a specific, widely reported event that took place that same year. In March 1859, a mammoth slave auction shamelessly occurred at a racecourse near Savannah, Georgia, attracting throngs of eager buyers. Some four hundred slaves went on the block there, and the mass sale was so well advertised it inspired the New York Tribune’s antislavery editor, Horace Greeley, to dispatch a correspondent to report on the dehumanizing proceedings. The reporter sent back a gruesome description of both the presale exhibition and the actual bidding for human flesh—all written in a matter-of-fact style that brilliantly conveyed the horror of the scene without overreaching for sympathy. The story appeared on March 9, 1859, and it is conceivable John Rogers read enough of it to inspire his artistic response:

The negroes were examined with as little consideration as if they had been brutes indeed; the buyers pulling their mouths open to see their teeth, pinching their limbs to find how muscular they were, walking them up and down to detect any sign of lameness, making them stoop and bend in different ways that they might be certain there was no concealed rupture or wound; and in addition to all this treatment, asking them scores of questions relative to their qualifications and accomplishments. All these humiliations were submitted to without a murmur and in some instances with good-natured cheerfulness….

The expression on the faces of all who stepped on the block was always the same, and told of more anguish than it is in the power of words to express. Blighted homes, crushed hopes and broken hearts was the sad story to be read in all the anxious faces. Some of them regarded the sale with perfect indifference, never making a motion save to turn from one side to the other at the word of the dapper Mr. Bryan [the auctioneer], that all the crowd might have a fair view of their proportions, and then, when the sale was accomplished, stepping down from the block without caring to cast even a look at the buyer, who now held all their happiness in his hands. Others, again, strained their eyes with eager glances from one buyer to another as the bidding went on, trying with earnest attention to follow the rapid voice of the auctioneer.…And so the Great Sale went on for two long days, during which time there were sold 429 men, women and children. There were 436 announced to be sold, but a few were detained on the plantations by sickness.

However disturbing, the report failed to include the most dehumanizing of all slave auction practices—the intimate, sometimes groping physical examination, usually conducted behind a screen but sometimes in full view of a cackling audience. One Northerner visiting Richmond in 1852 looked on in shock as a slave for sale was ushered behind one such screen, “his trowsers [sic] stripped down to his feet and his shirt pushed up on to his waist as though his private parts, behind and spine, thighs & legs were the parts most desirable to be perfect. I saw the fellows laugh as they looked at his privates.”

There is no mistaking the specificity of the lettering inscribed on the auctioneer’s block Rogers sculpted: “GREAT SALE OF HORSES, CATTLE, NEGROES & OTHER FARM STOCK THIS DAY AT PUBLIC AUCTION.” The reporter covering the Savannah auction for the Tribune had contended that words were inadequate to the scene. But John Rogers was fully up to the challenge. When The Slave Auction failed to take the public by storm, a disappointed Rogers went off for a while to study art in Rome. But he soon returned and never again wavered from his commitment to mass-produced sculpture for the popular market—visualizations of the recognizable incidents of everyday life, no matter how painful.

By 1860, the New York Tribune would contend, admittedly with a touch of hyperbole: “John Rogers is as familiar a name to Americans as that of the modern martyr, John Brown, and perhaps more so.”

Rogers would take up the Civil War as a theme in several subsequent statuettes, most famously the 1864 group in the Society’s collection, The Wounded Scout, a Friend in the Swamp, which according to the sculptor showed “an escaped slave leading off & protecting a wounded soldier.” The abolitionist poet Lydia Maria Child hailed it as “a significant lesson of human brotherhood for all the coming ages.” Rogers sent a copy of the plaster to President Lincoln, who in one of the few letters he ever wrote to an artist, acknowledged the gift on June 13, 1864:

Mr. John Rogers

New-York.

I can not pretend to be a judge in such matters; but the Statuette group “Wounded Scout”—“Friend in the Swamp” which you did me the honor to present, is very pretty and suggestive, and, I should think, excellent as a piece of art. Thank you for it.

Yours truly, A. Lincoln

Rogers always insisted that his plaster groups were “not intended for rich people’s parlors but more for common houses & the country.” But now one of them occupied a place in the most famous residence in the nation: the White House.

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