Randolph Rogers, the son of a carpenter and millwright, was born in Waterloo, New York, and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan, as his family followed the path of opportunity to the beckoning West. His first employment, at a local bakery, did not keep him from self-taught exercises with drawing and engraving. These resulted in the publication of some early woodcuts in the local newspaper, the Michigan Argus. Leaving the baking business behind, Rogers joined an older brother who owned a flour mill in a nearby town as a cook for a work crew. He returned to Ann Arbor and took a position in a dry goods store. Restless, and seeking a career in art, Rogers moved to New York City in 1847, hoping to find work in an engraving shop. He was unsuccessful in his quest and signed on as a sailor on a whaling vessel. Before he could ship out, however, he was offered a place as a clerk in the dry goods business of John Steward and Lycurgus Edgerton. (For the most detailed account of Rogers’s life, see Millard F. Rogers, Jr., Randolph Rogers [Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1971].) Rogers was a diligent clerk, but continued to draw and model in his free moments. In 1848 he held “an impromptu exhibition of his works, consisting of several figures and a bust of Byron” (Taft, p. 159). Among these figures may have been a model of one of Edgerton’s children. Rogers’s employers were so impressed with their young clerk’s untutored talent that they arranged for him to go to Europe to study and develop his skills.
In 1848, Rogers sailed for Leghorn, Italy (today, the Mediterranean port city of Livorno), and proceeded to Florence, where he spent two years at the Accademia di San Marco as the pupil of the Italian Neo-classical sculptor Lorenzo Bartolini (1777–1850). After Bartolini’s death, Rogers went to Rome in 1851, where he established a studio in the neighborhood of the Spanish Steps and the Café Greco, the center of the Anglo-American art colony. In 1852, Rogers exhibited at the National Academy of Design in New York, represented by an ideal bust, Night, the property of Ogden Haggerty, a prominent auctioneer and art patron.
When Rogers returned to New York in late 1854, he had already won his first major public commission: for a statue of John Adams (1854–59) intended for Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (The statue is now at Memorial Hall, Harvard University.) Rogers set up a studio at the National Academy of Design and looked for commissions, possibly intending to remain in the United States. During this visit he also submitted his proposal for bronze doors for the Rotunda of the National Capitol. Based on Lorenzo Ghiberti’s (1381–1455) famed “Gates of Paradise” doors for the Baptistry of the Duomo in Florence, very familiar to Rogers from his student years, the thirty-year-old sculptor’s panels depicted episodes in the life of Christopher Columbus. To prove his skill, he offered Captain Montgomery Meigs, who was in charge of artist selection in the Capitol, a photograph of his famous and popular Old Testament subject, Ruth Gleaning. Meigs was indeed impressed, and wrote in support of Rogers to Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, “If he can succeed as well with these as with his Ruth, of which you have a photograph, it will be well enough” (as quoted in Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America , p. 313). Rogers won the commission, but Davis did not remain long enough in Washington to enjoy the proof of the wisdom of his choice. The doors were cast in Munich in 1861 and installed at the Capitol in 1862, where they remain today.
Rogers returned to Rome in 1855. In 1857, he married Rosa Gibson, a well-connected Virginia woman, and the couple had ten children. Rogers was at the center of a convivial and prolific colony of expatriate American sculptors in Rome, who included, at various times, Thomas Crawford and Chauncey B. Ives (Rogers’s particular friends), William Wetmore Story, William Henry Rinehart, Joseph Mozier, Edward Sheffield Bartholomew, Harriet Hosmer, and Emma Stebbins.
In the years following the Civil War, Rogers garnered a string of lucrative, high-profile, public commissions. He executed an Abraham Lincoln Monument (showing a seated Lincoln holding the Emancipation Proclamation) for Fairmount Park in Philadelphia (1868–70), a William Henry Seward (1873–75) for Madison Square Park in New York City, and a series of Civil War memorial monuments in Cincinnati, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; Worcester, Massachusetts; and the Gettysburg Battlefield National Historic Park. From his base in Rome, Rogers entertained visiting Americans on the Grand Tour, who provided a steady source of portrait bust commissions. In 1873, he was honored to be the first American Academician and Professor of Sculpture at the venerable Accademia di San Luca. In 1884, two years after the onset of a debilitating illness, he was knighted by King Umberto I of Italy.