Born in 1848 in Dublin to the Irish wife of a French shoemaker, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was raised primarily in New York City where his parents immigrated when he was six months old. He was apprenticed to a cameo-cutter at the age of thirteen so he learned how to make jewelry with shells, gems and stones carved with portraits or scenes. Working at the cameo lathe for six years, Saint-Gaudens learned how to create the impression of three-dimensionality in a two-dimensional medium. He also enrolled in classes at the Cooper Union and at the National Academy of Design. After completing his apprenticeship at the age of nineteen, he took one hundred dollars of savings from his apprentice’s wages and sailed for Paris. Over the next eight years he studied art there and in Rome, where he developed his interest in Renaissance medals and bronze casting, as well as an admiration for Classical art and architecture. His career as a sculptor began when wealthy Americans living in Rome hired him to sculpt portraits and busts for them.
Saint-Gaudens’ career was guided by his mastery of realistic sculpture and bas-relief, which enabled him to produce over 200 works in marble and bronze, earning him an international reputation. He is well known for two types of art: small-scale portrait reliefs and monumental public sculpture, especially Civil War monuments. After the Robert Shaw Memorial, his best known public piece is the statue of Diana of the Tower which was commissioned to sit atop New York City’s original Madison Square Garden Building. Originally the highest point in the city, this statue was removed when the building was demolished in 1925, and now resides in the Great Stair Hall Balcony of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
The unusually complex Robert Shaw Memorial measures 11 feet by 14 feet and took Saint-Gaudens nearly fourteen years to complete. Originally conceived as a conventional equestrian statue, that plan was rejected by the Shaw family as too pretentious. The execution of the finished memorial became more detailed and complex as Saint-Gaudens developed his vision of what was to be memorialized. Begun as a low relief, a bas-relief, the final monument increased in depth from its original background so much that it became a combination of two and three dimensions.
Facing the colossal monument, the viewer sees a large frieze of relief sculpture of three rows of armed soldiers with their legs in various stages of a march. The figures, their rifles, canteens and packs fill the foreground and middleground with energy, movement and rhythm. The motion is forward for the figures, to the viewer’s right. Colonel Shaw is featured in the center, riding in front of his company of foot soldiers. The Colonel sits strictly at attention in his saddle as he proudly leads his loyal men. Although the scene is said to depict the Regiment marching down Beacon Street as they departed Boston on May 28, 1963, the rag-tag appearance of the troops is meant to represent their arduous trek to Fort Wagner.
Saint-Gaudens works in a convincing realistic style, sometimes called American Renaissance style. In the stoic procession each soldier is portrayed as an individual rather than any generic type of African American, which was typical at the time. Determined to depict the individuality of each person and to still convey the overall spirit of the regiment, Saint-Gaudens made many clay studies of the heads of black men willing to pose for him. He also tethered a horse in his studio to ensure accurate representation of animal anatomy. The only exception to this realism is an allegorical angel figure which hovers above the soldiers carrying poppies, symbols of death and remembrance, and an olive branch to symbolize peace.
When the Robert Shaw Memorial was unveiled in 1897, the philosopher William James observed that it was the first American soldiers’ monument dedicated to a group of citizens united in the interest of their country rather than in the honor of a single military hero. “There they march,” he said, “warm-blooded champions of a better day for man.” While the original sponsors of the project became frustrated with its complexity and long timeline, it is apparent that Saint-Gaudens recognized the full import of his accomplishment. He later wrote about the work, “developing in this way infinitely beyond what could be paid for, [the monument] became a labor of love.” In 1982, the names of 62 African American soldiers who gave their lives at Fort Wagner were inscribed on the base of the Robert Shaw Memorial. Both Colonel Shaw and Saint-Gaudens would no doubt be very pleased.
This article includes information from American Visions: The Epic History of Art in America published by Knopf, the Boston African American National Historic Site of the National Park Service, the National Gallery of Art, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and the Picturing America Teachers’ Resource Guide. Picturing America is a program from the National Endowment for the Humanities helping to teach American history and culture by bringing some of the country's great art directly to classrooms and libraries. More resources and information regarding eligibility for programs is available at picturingamerica.neh.gov.
Still Looking Towards the Future
by Phyllis Tuchman
JULY 27, 2007
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, America’s greatest sculptor, lived the American dream. Born in Dublin and raised in lower Manhattan, Saint-Gaudens studied art in Paris and launched his career in Rome. When he died from cancer on Aug. 3, 1907, the 59-year- old was a man of the world celebrated with fame, tributes, and awards. Despite his meager education — he left school at 12 — he held honorary degrees from Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. In London, he was made a member of the prestigious Royal Academy; in France, the daunting Legion of Honor.
Between 1879 and 1905, Saint-Gaudens portrayed in marble and bronze patricians, presidents, pilgrims, and patriots as well as soaring eagles and animated horses. Many of these statues and reliefs are now housed in museums; others decorate the parks and animate the streets of New York, Chicago, Boston, and Washington.
These days, when overpowering steel-walled sculptures and messy installations attract publicity as well as hedge fund collectors, Saint-Gaudens’ name may be less familiar than it once was. But every day thousands of people pass by his noble figures, which call them to a life of promise and grandeur.
Outside the former Plaza Hotel in New York, his monumental rendering of General William Tecumseh Sherman strides a horse and is led forward by Victory. His graceful goddess Diana, which once stood atop architect Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden, now aims her bow in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And Grief, the shrouded figure, sits mourning at the Adams Memorial in D.C.’s Rock Creek Cemetery, haunting us still.
A few months after Saint-Gaudens was born on March 1, 1848, his family fled Ireland’s potato famine and arrived in America. His father, a French cobbler, set up shop near the Five Corners, depicted in Martin Scorsese’s film, The Gangs of New York. The mature artist later evoked his childhood’s “Heroic charges and countercharges down Lispenard Street, bold forays into the enemy’s ground … [which] dominated life then as much as anything has since.” There the young, red-headed boy with a high forehead ended up with a pugilist’s nose. Stanford White thought his friend “was as strong as a prizefighter.” And novelist Robert Lewis Stevenson, the subject of several reliefs, considered him “remarkable looking, and like an Italian cinquecento medallion.”
At 13, Saint-Gaudens was apprenticed to a cameo-cutter. Once he mastered this craft, he never lost his ability to work on a small scale. Decades later, Teddy Roosevelt commissioned him to create Liberty gold coins for the U.S. Mint. In 2002, the last extant 1933 double eagle $20 coin sold at a Sotheby’s auction for $7.6 million dollars.
As a teenager, Saint-Gaudens took art classes at night. After seeing the young man’s drawings, Abram Hewitt, a future mayor of New York and Peter Cooper’s son-in-law, waived the age requirement for enrollment in the newly founded Cooper Union to let him enter. Saint-Gaudens also studied at the National Academy of Design.
Six years later, with confidence and $100, he set sail for France. Paris was the place to be. As the author Henry James once put it, “When today we look for ‘American art,’ we find it mainly in Paris.”
Unable to enroll at the vaunted Ecole des Beaux-Arts for almost a year, Saint-Gaudens, in 1867, entered another program, where he won two first-prize medals. When he showed his work to a Beaux-Arts professor, he was permitted to take classes unofficially, and then as a legitimate student.
At the start of the Franco-Prussian war, Saint-Gaudens left for Rome. There, he modeled his first life-size statue, a Hiawatha based on Longfellow’s poem. The sculptor hoped his seated, pensive Indian chief “would amaze the world and settle [his] future.”
Sure enough, a New York lawyer saw Hiawatha in Saint-Gaudens’ studio and funded its being cast in plaster. (In return, the artist sculpted portraits of his benefactor’s daughters.) A few years later an ex-governor of New York paid to have it completed in marble. And Saint-Gaudens’ career was launched.
Though he returned to New York in 1875, Saint-Gaudens traveled between America and Europe for the rest of his life. In December 1876, he was invited to make a monument to Admiral David Glasgow (“Damn the torpedoes. Full steam ahead!”) Farragut. This gripping statue in a wind-blown coat holds binoculars in one hand, a sword at his side. The bronze figure stands atop the first of many granite pedestals and exedra designed by some of America’s greatest architects — H.H. Richardson, Stanford White, and Charles McKim -- for America’s greatest sculptor. The remarkable synergy between the statues and their settings, as well as the contrast between bronze and stone, contributes to the enduring appeal of Saint-Gaudens’ statues.
After the Farragut was dedicated in 1881, commissions came pouring in. During the next two decades, Saint-Gaudens executed one important public project after another. They’re all masterpieces: The Pilgrim in Springfield, Mass.; Chicago’s Standing Lincoln; Diana; the memorial for Clover Adams; Peter Cooper in New York’s Cooper Square; the Boston memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and his regiment of black soldiers; a monument to James A. Garfield in Philadelphia; General John A. Logan and his spirited steed in Chicago’s Grant Park; and the awesome Sherman and Liberty at Fifth Avenue.
According to Saint-Gaudens, “toughness … pervades a sculptor’s life.” As he explained, “For we constantly deal … with molders, contracts, derricks, stone-men, builders, scaffolding, marble-assistants, bronze-men, trucks, rubbish men, plasterers and what-not else, all the while trying to soar into the blue.”
Few American sculptors have had his skill. Meticulous in his characterizations, he created larger than life-size statues bearing remarkable likenesses, knowing gestures, and garments detailed down to the correct button or the blunt-toed boots. Even his patinas are well chosen. And if this weren’t enough, his work conveys enviable virtues and strong emotions, including valor, leadership, pride, poise, anguish, and fearlessness.
A century after his death, Saint-Gaudens’ art has passed the test of time. Steady streams of tourists pose for pictures with General Sherman. In Madison Square, on a sweltering summer day, sunbathers and strollers walk up to Admiral Farragut for a closer look. These are the people his art has always touched: not the hip visitors to art fairs and biennales but the people on the street, the ones who live with his images. Saint-Gaudens’ statues are bold, dramatic, heroic. With their set jaws and searching eyes, his bronze figures span the ages, looking towards the future. They challenge the modern reluctance to look up, look ahead.