The National Portrait Gallery explores the life of iconic 20th-century Western entertainer and political commentator Will Rogers in an online exhibition.
The new online exhibition One Life: Will Rogers explores the life and legacy of the iconic Western actor, entertainer, and political commentator. Presented by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery — exclusively on its website, npg.si.edu — the exhibition brings together paintings and photographs with works on paper, including movie posters and animation drawings, and vintage film clips revolving around Oklahoma’s native son, whose humor bridged social divides.
"Will Rogers consumed the news of his era and related it with humor, but also with an interpretation that resonated with so many people. They came to rely on his humor and his commentary as a way to make sense of the affairs of the moment, and that is a big reason why he is so enduring,” says historian Kate Clarke Lemay, who curated the exhibition.
Rogers Roping the Cast of the Ziegfeld Follies
“He was also simply talented as a performer, and he knew how to connect with people,” Lemay says. “His upbringing on a ranch in Indian Territory in present-day Oklahoma absolutely shaped his sense of adventure and his love for the outdoors. To that end, I was impressed by his lifelong devotion to travel and the outdoors, as evidenced by his love for flying and his ill-fated last sojourn into Alaska with Wiley Post.”
From the press materials:
“Born in 1879 to a prominent Cherokee family on a ranch in Indian Territory near present-day Oologah, Oklahoma, Will Rogers came to showbusiness at a young age. Remarkably skilled with the lasso, he amazed audiences at steer roping contests in Oklahoma and later at Wild West shows in South Africa. Defying stereotypes of the rugged cowboy, Rogers was an intellect whose perfect comedic pitch and pointed commentary allowed him to step out of the saddle, and onto the stage. With a career that ultimately spanned vaudeville, silent films, “talkies,” newspaper, and radio, Rogers established himself as an icon of American culture and was one of the nation’s most prominent celebrities during his lifetime.
Joseph Grant, Will Rogers in Doctor Bull, black ink and opaque watercolor over graphite pencil on paperboard
“… An early media star with mass appeal, Rogers authored six books, appeared in 71 films, wrote 4,000 syndicated newspaper columns, and hosted a popular Sunday evening radio program. His dry takes on current events resonated with Americans across the political spectrum, who devoured the pointed jabs he directed at politicians and other newsmakers in his extremely popular newspaper columns and radio show. Yet whatever the medium, Rogers’ work lifted the nation’s spirits during some of the most trying times: World War I, the recession that followed, and the Great Depression.
“’Will Rogers was a star in every sense of the word,” said Lemay. “And part of what made him so appealing to audiences and readers was how sincerely relatable and true to himself he remained in his work and throughout his career. Whether on stage or in the paper, the ‘cowboy philosopher’ filtered the people and events of his time through a lens of wit, humor and the collective American conscience.’
Tooker-Moore Lithography Company, Will Rogers, color lithographic poster
“Rogers used his platform and fame to advocate for the things he cared about. He traveled the country during the Great Depression in support of the Red Cross, campaigned for an end to Prohibition, and advocated for greater U.S. investment in commercial and military aviation. His frequent writings on the latter issue helped shape public opinion in support of the then fledging aviation industry in the United States. In 1935, at the age of 55, [he] embarked upon an Alaskan adventure with veteran pilot and aviation pioneer Wiley Post. The two men lost their lives when the engine of their modified Lockheed Orion failed at low altitude and crashed into a coastal lagoon near Point Barrow. At the time of his death, Rogers was Hollywood’s best paid actor and one of the film industry’s main draws.”
One Life: Will Rogers was curated by historian Kate Clarke Lemay, with contributions by retired Portrait Gallery historian James Barber and with assistance from exhibitions program specialist Dominique DelGiudice. Connect with the National Portrait Gallery at npg.si.edu and on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and YouTube.
Read about the fateful plane crash that killed Will Rogers here.
Photography: (All images) courtesy the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery