Although it was a number of years ago, I remember that I was impressed the first time I saw a copy of "Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations" at the Hall of Valor Museum at New Market, Virginia.
I have long been a fan of sculpture. Having the talent to produce a two dimensional scene on canvas or paper is a skill that I have always envied, but, to be able to carve a life-like image out of stone, or wood, or plaster, or whatever else sculptors use to create their art, seems like a extra special gift. Just like reading a good book can sometimes take one back in time, viewing a good sculpture can do the same...but with even less effort. "Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations" is a perfect example of a sculpture that transports me back in history when I see it.
This particular realistic art masterpiece was modeled in 1865 by John Rogers and patented in 1866. Rogers, sometimes called the "People's Sculptor," or the "Normal Rockwell of the 1800s," was born in Massachusetts in 1829. He worked as a machinist, draftsman and mechanical engineer before receiving artistic training in Paris and Rome prior to the Civil War. Rogers returned to the United States before the Civil War and from 1861 to 1865 produced a number or war-related pieces. By the time Rogers retired in 1894 he had produced over 80 pieces and sold over 80,000 copies of those sculptures. Copies of Rogers's works were often produced in painted plaster and priced at between $15 and $20, and thus were affordable to many middle class Americans. The affordability of his works along with the subject matter he portrayed are two reasons he was called the "People's Sculptor."
"Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations" is like many of Rogers's works. His sculptures more often than not portray scenes one might have seen in everyday nineteenth century life. In this specific work a Southern woman places her hand on a Bible held by a Union officer as he administers the Oath of Allegiance before she can receive food assistance. Next to the woman stands her son, possibly now fatherless, and wrapped in her skits. The Union officer holds his kepi aloft in respect, while a former slave boy takes in the scene as he leans on his basket and the food barrel. I think Rogers's real talent in this particular work is taking subjects of such social and cultural diversity and placing them all in a scene that elicits so many levels of empathy.
Someday I would like to claim a copy of "Taking the Oath and Drawing Rations" as my own. But, regardless of whether I ever place one on my end table or not, I can still appreciate the skill and subject matter that Rogers employed along with the significance his art holds in American history.