Tag Archives: Salem Artists

The Sculptor’s Mother

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.

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20191031_153222Indian 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.

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Pickman Derby House 70 Wash

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Sara Rogers Salem Literary and Commercial Observer June 9 1827

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 businessmanshortly 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).

Rogers Sarah

Sarah Rogers NYHS

Sarah Rogers Checkers

Checkers photograph Essex Institute

Rogers Marketing

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.


Wrong Impression

I am absolutely fascinated by this c. 1780s mezzotint depicting the capture of Major John André which I recently found in the digital collections of the Winterthur Museum for several reasons: it is by a Salem artist, Samuel Blyth (1744-95), more primarily known for his heraldic paintings, musical instruments, and the fact that he was the older brother of the more prominent pastellist Benjamin Blyth(e), its naïve presentation, in which everyone looks strangely happy rather than surprised, and its lyrical title: Ye foil’d, ye baffled Brittons/This Behold nor longer urge your Pardons, Threats, or Gold; Seen in each virtuous Patriotic Zeal/ To save their country and promote its weal/ Disdaining bribes to wound a righteous Cause/ While ANDRE falls a victim to the laws.

Blythe print Winterthur

I am also interested in this image because it gets the essential detail of André’s capture—the fact that he was dressed in civilian clothes rather than a uniform, which led to his arrest, prosecution, and execution as a spy—wrong. The Major is clearly in uniform here, and the New York militiamen who captured him look a bit too “regular” as well. Contrast this with one of many depictions of the capture issued in the mid-nineteenth century, when everyone has their story–and image–straight (well nearly everyone: a Currier and Ives print somehow places George Washington in the scene). By that time, after Thomas Sully’s influential 1812 painting, André is uniformly uniform-less and boot-less, with the papers relating to the capture of West Point supplied by Benedict Arnold revealed.

Andre

Andre by Sully WAMCapture of Major John Andre by John Paulding, David Williams and Issac Vanwart, New York: Sowle and Shaw, 1845, Library of Congress; The Capture of Major André, Thomas Sully, 1812, Worcester Art Museum

Could Blyth’s mezzotint be the first image of André’s capture? I can’t find an earlier one, and that would be yet another Salem “first” (and first impressions are often wrong). This would explain his mistaken details–although he certainly has the bribery attempt down. What is the source of his vision, and his copy: the Foil’d and Baffled Brittons? Was he carving out a future for himself in the emerging industry of patriotic publishing? Apparently earlier mezzotints of George and Martha Washington once attributed universally to Boston printmaker Joseph Hiller might have been the work of Blyth: these images cast a man who has been primarily associated with rather elitist creations in a new, populist light—a Revolutionary transition doubtless made by many American artists.

Holyoke Coat of Arms

Blythe collage Holyoke Family Coat of Arms, late eighteenth century, attributed to Samuel Blyth, Northeast AuctionsLady Washington and His Excellency George Washington Esq., mezzotints after Charles Willson Peale, c. 1776-77, possibly Joseph Hiller or Samuel Blyth, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


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