I’ve been working my way through all of the artists who were born or lived in Salem since I began this blog so many years ago, but one very notable and successful artist whom I have yet to cover is the sculptor John Rogers (1829-1904), chiefly because I don’t really care for his work. They have not aged well, but the “Rogers Groups” were important expressions of American material culture in the later nineteenth century: often Rogers is referred to as the Normal Rockwell of sculptors, and plaster castings of his best-selling works, depicting sentimental scenes of a young couple about to proclaim their marriage vows before a country parson and a convivial games of checkers “up at the farm,” sold thousands of copies for $15.00 each from 1860 to 1890. Even though Rogers studied in Paris like so many aspiring American artists, he firmly rejected the neoclassical sculptural style of his teachers—-and his time—in favor of a more accessible “vernacular” approach. He wanted to be a successful, popular artist more than an artist: he told his mother so, many times, in letters we can read at the New York Historical Society. The mother of John Rogers was Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers (1805-1877), and she is really my interest and my focus; but I can only get to her through him. And my interest in her started with a dress, the beautiful, ethereal, dress seemingly spun from air and mica (but really Indian muslin and silver) which she wore to her wedding reception in 1827.
Indian Muslin and silver wedding reception dress of Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers, 1827, Peabody Essex Museum (Gift of Miss Jeannie Dupee, 1979).
This dress is in the stunning new Asian Export gallery of the Peabody Essex Museum. Since its opening about six weeks ago, I have snuck into see it (and several other things) about three or four times: I’m obsessed with it (and several other things)! The dress is beautiful, but I feel a connection to Sarah largely through her younger sister, Mary Jane Derby (Peabody), who was an artist and the author of a hand-written and -bound journal composed for her grandchildren which a lovely lady from Maine bought at a yard sale and sent to me: I know that I should turn this little book over to her family, or an archive, but I’ve held on to it simply because I cherish it. In the journal, Mary Jane writes about her wonderful childhood in the large mansion on Washington Street that she depicts in one her most alluring paintings. This is the mansion to which Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers would return after her marriage to John Rogers of Boston, and the birthplace of her son John Rogers (Jr.) in 1829.
Mary Ellen Derby, the Pickman-Derby Mansion at 70 Washington Street, c. 1825; Detroit Institute of Arts; a Moulton-Erickson Photograph from the 1880s, Cornell University Library—the house was demolished in 1914 for the present Masonic building; The Margaret, co-owned by Mary Jane’s and Sarah Ellen’s father John Derby, was one of the first American ships to reach Japan, in 1801, Old-time Ships of Salem, Essex Institute, 1917; The Rogers wedding announcement in the Salem Literary and Commercial Observer, June 9, 1827.
Mary Jane and Sarah Ellen Derby seem to have had a perfect Salem childhood growing up in this mansion during Salem’s most prosperous period, the granddaughters of Salem’s most prosperous merchant, Elias Hasket Derby, and the daughters of John Derby, Esq, part-owner of The Margaret, one of the first American ships (and THE first Salem ship) to dock in Japan. I’m so dazzled by her childhood (and her dress) that I make the cardinal historical mistake when I look at the post-marriage life of Sarah Ellen: I judge this life by my own standards and perspectives, rather than hers. By all accounts Sarah and her husband had a happy marriage (they had eight children, after all, of whom John Jr. was the second-eldest) but their lives together don’t seem to have been as comfortable as her Salem life. Despite his Harvard degree and Boston Brahmin pedigree, John Sr. was not a very good businessman: shortly after John Jr.’s birth in 1829 the young family was off to Cincinnati where Mr. Rogers attempted to establish a sawmill (and where Mary Jane met her husband, the Reverend Ephraim Peabody, while visiting her older sister) after this failed it was back to (western) Massachusetts for a silkworm enterprise, which also failed after a few years. There was a brief stint in New Hampshire, and then the (now much larger) Rogers family settled in Roxbury, with John Sr. taking up a post (a political appointment?) at the Boston Custom House which he held for the rest of his life. There was no Harvard for John Jr.: he was briefly established in a Boston apprenticeship before he ran off in pursuit of an artistic career. Perhaps this background explains his entrepreneurial attitude towards that career. All of this makes me feel sorry for Sarah: all those moves,, all those children! Did she have any help? Did she look back at her wedding reception dress and think: how did I get here? But I’m just projecting my own feelings on to her: she had a large and by all accounts happy family and a successful son who addressed all of his letters to that family to her, at its center, or heart (and it looks like despite all of those children, she still might have been able to fit into that dress).
Sarah Ellen Derby Rogers and her family, New York Historical Society Rogers Collection and the archived online exhibit John Rogers: American Stories where you can see more photographs, get more context, and read letters from John to Sarah; Checkers at the Farm—the second most popular work of Rogers—Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of John Rogers and Son; photograph of “Checkers”, Smithsonian via Essex Institute Lantern slide: E24240; Advertisement for “Checkers”, Harper’s Weekly 3 (March 18, 1876): 235.