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Rip Van Winkle Returned

Object Number: 
Painted plaster
Overall: 21 3/4 x 10 1/4 x 8 1/2 in. ( 55.2 x 26 x 21.6 cm )
inscribed: front of base: "RIP VAN WINKLE/RETURNED" inscribed: back of base: "PATENTED/JULY 25 1871"
Literary figure.
Gallery Label: 
Rogers' three Rip Van Winkle groups comprise his first formal series. The artist's long-standing interest in storytelling was already well known, and viewers enjoyed decoding the narratives implied in the meticulous detail of his groups. For this serial subject, Rogers expanded his notion of narrative beyond the use of accessories to create a more powerful sense of temporality with multiple groups. He chose a particularly appropriate theme, which centers on the passage of time. Washington Irving wrote "Rip Van Winkle" in 1819, and it quickly became one of his most popular tales. It tells about the years before the American Revolutionary War, when Rip Van Winkle lives in a village at the foot of New York's Catskill Mountains. An amiable man whose home and farm suffer from his lazy neglect, he is loved by everyone except his wife. One autumn day he escapes her nagging by wandering into the mountains. There he encounters strangely dressed men, rumored to be the ghosts of Henry Hudson's crew, who are playing ninepins. After drinking some of their liquor, he settles down under a shady tree and falls asleep. He wakes and returns to his village, where he finds twenty years have passed. Late-nineteenth-century Americans were intimately familiar with Irving's story and its popularity owed in large part to its huge success as a stage play starring Joseph Jefferson. One of the most acclaimed actors of his time, Jefferson first starred in a production of Rip Van Winkle in 1859. By 1883 he estimated that he had played the part on no fewer than 4,500 occasions. Rogers saw Jefferson play the role in 1869, and he asked Jefferson to sit for the sculptures. The artist's talents as a portraitist served him well; the series enjoyed acclaim and popularity, remaining in Rogers' catalogue until the end of his career. Praises for the series connected it closely with Jefferson and his fame as Rip, making the groups as much icons of popular culture as of literary culture. One critic of Rogers' sculptures spent nearly as much ink on Jefferson as on the works themselves, claiming, "Jefferson has made the story of Rip more truly his own than it even is Washington Irving's." In taking on a beloved American story that had been turned into a wildly successful play, Rogers translated Irving's story from book to stage to plaster, and he carefully negotiated the layers of meaning that accumulated with each of these transitions. He made judicious choices about which aspects he would retain and which he would eliminate, taking full advantage of the unique capabilities of his medium. Contemporary critics were well aware of these fine distinctions, and more than one noted that the settings Rogers chose were taken not from the play, but from Irving's story. The New York Evening Post writer commented that in spite of Rip's "'Jeffersonian' cast," the surroundings closely followed Irving's text. A Chicago critic pointed out that "although [Rogers] faithfully portrays the great actor in the person of Rip, he does not copy any situation occurring in the drama." At the same time, Rip was "attired in a dress literally copied from what Jefferson wears in the early scenes of the play, every fold and wrinkle and tatter of which is familiar to us all." Rogers' union of literature, theater, and sculpture was considered particularly nuanced and successful: one writer noted, "If there is less of the plain A.B.C. in these groups than Mr. Rogers has usually given to the world, there is a delicate, half-hidden subtlety of expressions and touch that are nonetheless readily comprehended by those who can read character by facial expression." Rogers introduced each composition in his sales catalogues with a quote from Irving's tale explaining the action, and Jefferson's character and likeness are naturally the focus of attention. However, the space Rogers created was not a theatrical box with one frontal vantage point (as in his later Shakespearean groups). Rather, Rogers exploited the sculptural medium to show each incident in the round, from all sides. His spiraling compositions create a vertiginous sense of disorientation that is perfectly in keeping with the mood of Irving's tale. In the final group of the series, Rip has awakened from his twenty-year slumber and returned to his old homestead, now dilapidated and decayed. Rogers quoted Irving's words in his sales catalogue as he encounters what he thought was his dog, Wolf: "Rip called him by name, but the cur snarled, showed his teeth and passed on. . . . 'My very dog,' sighed poor Rip, 'has forgotten me.'" Rogers depicted Rip standing before a few ramshackle relics of his former abode, his clothing in tatters. Rogers once again employed a composition that makes full use of the sculptural medium: the dog climbing away from Rip curves behind him, urging the viewer around the group and up to Rip's arm, his hand pressing his temple in disbelief.
Articles, Scrapbooks of miscellaneous clippings, etc. about John Rogers, Vols. 1, 3, 4, New York Historical Society. Newark Daily Advertiser, Newark, N.J., Sep. 30, 1871, p. 1. The Aldine, New York, Vol. IV, No. 11, November, 1871, p. 181. Partridge, William Ordway, "John Rogers, The Peoples Sculptor," Feb., 1896, Vol. XIII, No. 6, pp. 705-21. 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. 78-9. Baker, Charles E., "John Rogers As He Depicted American Literature," American Collector, Vol. 13, No. 10, pp. 10-1, 16. Wallace, David H., John Rogers, The People's Sculptor, Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 1967, pp. 109, 111, 144 , 166-7, 226-7, 294, 301, 304. Holzer, Harold, and Farber, Joseph, "The Sculpture of John Rogers," Antiques Magazine, April 1970, pp. 756-68. Bleier, Paul and Meta, John Rogers Statuary, Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 2001, pp. 130-1.
Credit Line: 
Gift of Mr. Samuel V. Hoffman
Due to ongoing research, information about this object is subject to change.
Creative: Tronvig Group