- Historic Sites
Adventures in Paris
American artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens finds inspiration in France to create one of America’s most iconic sculptures, a memorial to Civil War hero Adm. David Farragut
Fall 2011 | Volume 61, Issue 2
AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS came to Paris for the first time in 1867, the year it seemed the whole world came to Paris for the Exposition Universelle, the grand, gilded apogee of Second Empire exuberance. He arrived on an evening in February, by train after dark and apparently alone. He was 19 years old, a redheaded New York City boy, a shoemaker's son, who had been working since the age of 13. He was not one of the first ambitious young Americans to come to Paris following the Civil War. He was younger than most, however, and in background and the future he had in store, he was like no one else. Until then he had never been away from home.
The young man had more in mind than the exposition. He planned to enroll at the École des Beaux-Arts and remain in Paris as long as need be. Like young painter George Healymore than 30 years before, he had something he was determined to accomplish, and thus become accomplished himself. He considered himself bound to be a sculptor. That no American had ever been accepted as a student in sculpture at the École did not deter him. But first he needed a job. In his pocket he had $100 saved for him by his father from his own small wages.
ON HIS 13th birthday, Saint Gaudens's father had told him that he would need to work; the boy had therefore become the apprentice of cameo cutter Louis Avet. Cameos for men were much in style as scarf pins, with the heads of dogs, horses, and lions—lion heads were especially in demand—cut from amethyst and other stones. Gus worked 10-hour days and spent the first part of his apprenticeship polishing the backgrounds of stone cameos cut by his master, but was soon allowed to do more, including custom colored cameo portraits on conch shells.
The art of cutting cameos was a species of sculpture rather than engraving. The artisan worked at a small bench with a multitude of steel engraving tools, or burins, with different-shaped points, these powered by a foot pedal that the cutter pumped as one did a sewing machine. The piece of stone or shell was fixed with cement to a stick, to hold it fast while the cutter worked. His work on cameos led Gus to seek a career as a sculptor. Not only did he like giving physical dimension to a subject; he had come to appreciate the importance of faces.
His apprenticeship years were also the years of the Civil War, and the day-to-day presence, the excitement and tragedy, of the war were seldom out of mind. Soldiers thronged the streets. Once, from an open window at Avet's workshop, the boy had watched a whole contingent of New England volunteers march down Broadway on their way to war, singing "John Brown's Body." Another day he saw "Grant himself" with his slouch hat parade by on horseback. Greatest of all was the thrill of seeing President Lincoln, who with his height seemed "entirely out of proportion" with the carriage in which he rode.
IN PARIS SAINT-GAUDENS moved in at first with his uncle François, his father's brother, on the avenue de la Grande-ArmÉe, and "at once" found a part-time job working for an Italian cameo cutter in Montmartre.
As promised, the glittering Exposition Universelle of 1867 proved bigger and more spectacular than anything the world had yet seen. One giant, oval-shaped, glass-and-cast-iron exhibition "palace" and more than 100 smaller buildings filled most of the vast Champ de Mars on the Left Bank. More than 50,000 exhibitors took part. The theme was "objects for the improvement of the physical and moral condition of the masses." By the time the fair closed, on the last day of October, 11 million people—more than twice the number who had attended the Exposition Universelle of 1855—had poured across the Pont d'IÉna to the banner-festooned main entrance on the Quai d'Orsay.
The number and importance of contemporary paintings and sculptures on exhibit surpassed anything seen before in one place. Though the American section of the Fine Arts Department was quite modest compared to that of the French, it was larger than it had been at the exposition of 1855 and contained a number of works that, in time, would rank as masterpieces. The most admiring crowds gathered about two enormous, dramatic landscapes (both befitting subjects for America, it was felt): Albert Bierstadt's The Rocky Mountains and Frederic Church's Niagara Falls, the only American painting to be honored with a silvermedal. Among several works evoking the Civil War from a Northern point of view were John Ferguson Weir's The Gun Foundry, showing the munitions works near West Point, and Winslow Homer's Prisoners from the Front, in which three Confederate prisoners under guard stand before a Northern general.
Regrettably, there isn't any account of how much of the exposition Saint-Gaudens saw. Probably he lacked money enough to attend more than once or twice. But with his zest for getting "his money's worth," he doubtless covered a lot of ground, and he did see something of lifelong importance to him. It was a small bronze, a standing figure by the French sculptor Paul Dubois, of St. John the Baptist as a Child. It "seemed extraordinary to me," he would write years afterward, and Dubois's work and Dubois himself were to have "profound" influence.
WHEN A FORMAL notification arrived, informing Augustus Saint-Gaudens that he had been admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts after a wait of nine months, he enrolled immediately in the atelier of François Jouffroy. Just as students in painting at the École, such as Thomas Eakins, aspired to study under Jean-LÉon Gérôme, master of the classical mode, who put great stress on drawing the human figure, so for those who would be sculptors, Jouffroy's atelier was, as Saint-Gaudens said, "the triumphant one."