Randolph Rogers' Lincoln and the Emancipated Slave in Context

ARTHIST230 Winter 2023, Apr 19 2023

A Brief Introduction to Rogers

To examine how this piece by Rogers fits into both his portfolio and other artist’s of the time, we ought to examine his life. Randolph Rogers was born in Waterloo, New York, and ended up moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan at the age of 17. He’s often noted for being from the American midwest despite much of his adolescence spent in upstate New York, and of course later moving to Italy. Rogers had an interest in wood block printmaking as a child, having given and sold many of his early prints to friends and family. While he did attempt to turn this into a job as an adult by becoming an engraver at a local New York newspaper company, this did not pan out as he hoped, and nearly became a whaler. He was later convinced by a wealthy friend who discovered Roger’s talent in sculpture that also offered to fund his art education to move to Florence, Italy, where he then became an apprentice to neoclassical sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini. He did, however, keep in close contact with his friends and family in America, having married a well-connected woman from Virginia named Rosa Gibson. Given that she inherited her wealth and the civil war was not long ago, it is likely her family had connections to slavery, and this could have influenced Roger's perspective of the United States. He held exhibitions of his work in the states that helped to circulate his work until he started being recognized more so for his public sculptures. Randolph was seemingly also close with well-off Americans that spread word of his work around the states despite living the majority of his life in Italy, even with frequent visits to America. These were, for him, inspirational trips where he appreciated America and American history, and additionally associated with wealthy folk often involved in local governments who commissioned sculptures from him that were focused on American history.

Rogers’ Other Works and His Reputation

Randolph Rogers was no stranger to using America and its government as subject matter for his art. Around the time of Lincoln and the Emancipated Slave and its completion, his work became known more for its idealized representation than the narrative works he had done previously. In fact, Rogers’ first public commission was a sculpture of John Adams, the second president of the United States (Lahvis, 1999).

One of Rogers’ most notable works during the nineteenth century, and to this day, was the Washington Monument that stands in Richmond, Virginia. This monument was initially designed and started by Thomas Crawford, a fellow American sculptor, in 1850, and finished by Rogers in 1869 after being appointed to the monument by the Governor and Commissioners of the monument after Crawford’s passing in 1857 (“Alexandria Gazette”, 1857). The public reception of Rogers’ completion seems to be positive, as his previous work had at this point given him an exceptional reputation among the American public. In 1868, The Richmond Daily Dispatch commented on the transition between artists by declaring Rogers as; “a man who has proved to be entirely competent to the task.” The Dispatch goes on to say; “Rogers has entitled himself to a new chaplet for the faithful and brilliant style in which he has consummated the noble design of his illustrious friend” (“The Washington Monument”, 1868). The amount of praise given to Rogers at this time goes on to prove the fact that Rogers had already made a name for himself by creating works on this similar subject material.

Rogers’ creation of American-centric art did not slow down, rather it increased. With the end of the Civil War came a so-called American Renaissance in which Rogers participated in plentifully. After the completion of Lincoln and the Emancipated Slave in 1886, he made several Civil War monuments and statues, one of which being the Michigan Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument in 1867, with additions made to the monument in 1881. The Soldiers’ Monument stands in Detroit to this day, placed in the center of the city’s Campus Martius Park. Among the symbolic and historical figures that reside on this monument, including an idealized “Michigan” in the form of a Native woman holding a shield and dagger. On a lower tier of the monument, adorning Union soldiers with wreaths of laurels sits “Emancipation.” This depiction of Emancipation on the monument appears to be contested, as we learn of Freeman H. M. Murray’s views on the statue in his book Emancipation and the Freed in American Sculpture: A Study in Interpretation. Murray claims the figure of Emancipation; “can scarcely be regarded as an attempt to symbolize the Emancipation as an event; although it was probably intended to be a perpetual reminder of one of the War’s most notable results' ' (Murray, 1916). Looking at other works of the time period and their depictions of emancipation, Rogers’ depiction seems to have been revered as an almost earnest depiction of the material. This almost seems to contrast with how the emancipated slave is depicted in the design of Lincoln and the Emancipated Slave. As the Emancipation that sits atop the soldiers’ monument, the “daughter of Africa” is written to be “graciously idealized” (Murray, 1916).

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Ruth, 1850

Randolph Rogers 

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Portrait Of John Adams (1735-1826

Randolph Rogers, American (Waterloo, NY 1825 - 1892 Rome, Italy)

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The Sentinel, 1863-1865

Randolph Rogers

Was Roger’s Work Typical?

Randolph Rogers was an acclaimed sculptor whose career spanned across continents. Rogers first big break in terms of sculpting was his work on Ruth created in 1850 in Florence, Italy. The sculpture is of Ruth Gleaning, from the Book of Ruth written in the old testament. The story of Ruth represents the trials and tribulations the average citizen endures. The sculpture depicts a young lady who is crouching down and is partially nude and in a very similar position to the female documented in Lincoln and the emancipated slave. The critical reception of the artwork was widely accepted by both critics and common viewers of art. The American Artists In Florence; Letter to the National Intelligencer in 1851 for example stated “Beautiful Work” “Nothing can exceed the poetic beauty of the design.” The Boston Recorder in 1855 stated Ruth was “unsurpassed in grace and delicacy” and “Advantageously known to American travelers.”  

Rogers created a statue of president John Adams in 1855, commemorating his life. The statue currently resides at Harvard college. This marked the first statue Rogers created of a presidential figure.

Rogers' work on The Sentinel  in 1864 was his first statue commemorating soldiers and efforts from the civil war. The sentinel depicts a union soldier and is there to commemorate all of the fallen soldiers from Cincinnati who died in the civil war. Rogers would go on to create another soldiers monument in 1866 in Rhode Island dedicated to the soldiers and sailors who participated in the war. 

Rogers created Lincoln and The Emancipated Slave in 1866, and his past works show a presidential figure, Civil War Commemoration, a vulnerable female character. This shows that the work done on Lincoln and The Emancipated slave was typical of Rogers.

A Period Piece for African Americans in Art

As a neoclassical artist Randolph Rogers was often playing off of more than 2000 years of artistic precedent and history. He further also often chose well explored topics such as the bible or the founding fathers for his works. Thus Randolph Rogers was an artist who attempted to interact additively with the artistic environment he worked in. As such exploring the greater context of African American portrayals in art is paramount to understanding Lincoln and the Emancipated slave. To this end perhaps the most persistent depiction of African Americans in the 1800s was that of the minstrel. Being perhaps the most widespread depiction of African Americans among non-abolitionists it holds a deserved place of infamy in American history. It was inspired by a variety of stereotypes among even older American art, but was solidified by Thomas Rice and the popularization of the minstrel show.  Minstrel shows were intentionally derogatory depictions of African Americans as incompetent and incompatible with freedom and civilization. The actors playing the roles of the African Americans were often white creating another layer of insult to this depiction. While these minstrel shows peaked in popularity from the 1850s to 1870s they would persist in some corners of America until the 1960s. We can see it bleeding through American history in both Jim Crow and modern branding controversies as Aunt Jemima who was heavily derived from this trope. This depiction of African Americans was one that Randolph Rogers would have found himself directly rebelling against. Lincoln and the emancipated slave being a celebration of that emancipation is in direct conflict with this type of depiction of African Americans. However, minstrels were not the only depiction of African Americans as African Americans would often use self depictions to try to combat derogatory stereotypes. Sojourner Truth used her photos not only as fundraising opportunities but also to advertise the cause. She would often pose in traditional portrait-esque poses with traditionally classy items and write politically powerful statements underneath her photos. Similarly Fredrick Douglass would take many pictures throughout his life as a form of combatting African American stereotypes. He saw photos as a great equalizer because it allowed groups that traditionally could not afford depictions of themselves to have high quality images for cheap. He used this ease of creation to spread this image and thus his message far and wide. These images would often again be taken carefully posed in a portrait style with him in his best clothes. Switching mediums we see an earlier self depiction through a portrait meant for his autobiography from Gustavus Vassa. A former American slave who became a freedman in the 18th century UK he used his portrait and autobiography to attempt to bring about abolition. His portrait is incredibly similar to Fredrick Douglasses as it shows a singular figure with a blank background in a nice suit. While Randolph Rogers may not have directly played off of these depictions in his Lincoln and the emancipated slave it is important to contrast these depictions of how African Americans wanted to be seen from how traditional sculptors like Randolph Rogers chose to portray them. The emancipated slave in Randolph Rogers' work is missing any sense of pride or agency that is present in the African American created depictions. While the African Americans depict themselves as sharply dressed and powerfully posed Randolph Rogers undermines these depictions by creating a situation wherein the slave is half naked and at the complete mercy of Lincoln. Perhaps the depiction Randolph Rogers took the most inspiration from is that of the abolitionist. Being a neoclassical artist himself it’s no surprise that Randolph Rogers latched onto the depictions that were often derived from neoclassical ideals of perfect bodies. They often distorted typical African American features to make them fit with  Greco-Roman ideas of perfect bodies. Perhaps the best and most relevant example of this is a work that the slave in Lincoln and the emancipated slave is most reminiscent of. The Libyan Sibyl was carved before the civil war started and is intended to be a statement on the injustice of African American slavery, but notably doesn’t actually depict a person with very many African American features. 

Finally, although he likely never knew of it since this is a mockup of a monument depicting African Ameicans in a positive light, one of the only pre-war monuments including a celebration of African Americans must be explored. Charles Avery was an abolitionist who founded a church and a university and he allowed African Americans to attend his university. On his grave he placed a mural to his university that included several well dressed African Ameicans. This is an interesting depiction compared to Randolph Rogers and all other monuments as it balked at the abolitionist depictions for the African Americans self depiction style emphasizing their class and ability to advance in society. While Randolph Rogers could’ve used his immense reputation as a tool to advance African American interests and freedom he instead focused on his mainstay monument design of focusing on important men in history. 

Depictions of Emancipation at the Time Compared to Rogers’ The Emancipated Slave

Randolph Rogers was often commissioned to recreate important events in American history. He had an immense amount of experience in sculpting the human form, male and female. The pose he depicts the two subjects in was a common structure in relation to other artworks at the time that involved slavery and or emancipation. Other depictions of slaves in sculptures commonly had the mention of the broken shackles around their wrist or ankle as symbolism of freedom. The slave was also normally depicted in some sort of kneeling position even if they weren't pleading to a second figure, they would often be looking upward at something or someone. Emancipation was commonly depicted in similar ways regardless of medium, especially in the context of Lincoln and slavery.

In comparison to other artworks of the 19th century, the pleading figure that was the subject would normally be a male slave or in lithographs and illustrations we would see a group of men and women in the same position with the “emancipator” above them. This can be seen in the 1865 Lithograph Freedom For All, Both Black and White!. Works like Thomas Ball’s sculpture , Emancipation, also pictured Lincoln as the higher, more important figure; this sculpture shares a lot of similarities to Rogers’ sculpture. Especially due to the position of both bodies and how Lincoln has a podium to lean on. Ball also had other iterations of his sculpture with a more feminine subject as the slave kneeling.

Another similar work in stance would be Edmonia Lewis’ , Forever Free. This piece also depicts a slave broken out of shackles and includes a man and a woman but Lincoln is not present. It is suggested though that this work includes two different races considering the fact that the woman appears to be white or mixed race due to her features in comparison to the male figure. Her work also shows the same common hierarchy of men being above women.

In most other depictions of emancipation the slave is always shown in tattered clothing and very little of the body being covered. A common discussion around depictions of emancipation at the time were whether the slave figure actually looked African American. Because most sculptors at the time were classically trained they were used to recreating the perfect ancient Rome figures which had features of more European looking people. A lot of criticism at the time was due to the slave figure looking like any white person in sculpture, artists began using African American people as references to make more accurate depictions. The stance of the slave kneeling also had references beyond emancipation and can be read as them looking up to a higher power whether that be Lincoln or God or may even be a way of suggesting how Lincoln could be similar to biblical figures.


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