- 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
Jouffroy was 62, the son of a baker, tall, dark, and spare, "with little, intelligent black eyes," as Saint-Gaudens remembered. Concentrated effort at modeling and drawing day after day for three years produced clear progress. Jouffroy, while not a sculptor of the highest rank, was an exceptional teacher, and his atelier was a center for what was the new movement in sculpture in France, which took its inspiration fromthe Italian Renaissance. In this regard, Saint-Gaudens had come to his studies in Paris at a highly advantageous time.
It was then, too, in his student years in Paris that he reached certain conclusions about work that were to stand as his guiding principles, and that he was one day, in turn, to stress again and again to students of his own:
IN THE MID-1870s Saint-Gaudens learned of plans to create a memorial in New York City to Adm. David Glasgow Farragut—"Damn the Torpedoes" Farragut, the Civil War hero of the Battle of Mobile Bay, which had resulted in the surrender of New Orleans. A committee had been formed to pick a sculptor. A sum of $9,000 was said to be available from the city. Saint-Gaudens applied at once and contacted everyone he knew who might put in a word for him.
To do a man like Farragut justice in bronze would be no easy undertaking. The admiral had had as long and distinguished a career as any officer since the founding of the U.S. Navy. The son of a naval officer, he had gone to sea with the Navy at age 10, even briefly commanded a captured ship at the age of 12. Serving on ships of the line, he had seen much of the world before he was 20.
He was resourceful and intelligent—without benefit of formal schooling, he learned to speak French, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic—and, above all, courageous. By the outbreak of the Civil War he had served in the Navy nearly 50 years. When assigned to capture New Orleans, he commanded the largest fleet to have sailed under the American flag, and at the war's end he became the first man ever to hold the rank of full admiral in the U.S. Navy.
"I have made two models, a large drawing and a bust," Saint-Gaudens wrote. "As far as I can see I am in a fair way to have the commission." His career and his marriage to a young woman he had recently met in Rome were riding on it. And he got it.
Of the $9,000, he was to receive $2,000 on signing the agreement, $3,000 on completion of the statue in clay, $2,000 when the statue was cast in bronze, and a final check for $2,000 on delivery of the finished work to New York. Later he would record in an account book, "On hand June 1, 1877 when I was married, [$]2,821.00."
Paris was essential to the work, Gus believed, not only because the "art current" ran stronger there, but because sculpture as an art form was taken more seriously than at home, and experienced craftsmen—plaster molders, foundrymen, and the like—were plentiful. The project at hand was greater and more challenging by far than anything he had ever undertaken, and he would need the best help he could get.
Working as never before and needing more space, Gus leased a huge, barnlike studio on the Left Bank at 49 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, at the center of a growing community of American artists. The new studio had once been a public dance hall, and with 14 windows overhead, each 10 feet square, there was plenty of light.
EARLY IN 1878, hearing that his young architect friend Stanford White was planning a trip to Europe, Saint-Gaudens wrote to say he was "pegging away" at the Farragut, but that the limited interest of his subject's clothing made the job "a hard tug." From the point of view of sculpture, Saint-Gaudens disliked modern clothing. Here he had only a cap, sword, field glasses, belt, and buttons to work with—not much, he lamented, adding, "When you come over I want to talk with you about the pedestal. Perhaps something might be done with that."
White's response came at once: "I hope you will let me help you with the Farragut pedestal... Then I should go down to Fame, even if it is bad, reviled for making a poor base for a good statue." In June, White reported that he was on his way to Paris and that their mutual friend Charles McKim was coming, too.
They arrived in midsummer 1878, and after extended discussions with the sculptor in his crowded "ballroom studio" and much conviviality with Gus, his wife, and friends—dining at Foyot's, a favorite restaurant of students beside the Luxembourg Gardens, seeing Sarah Bernhardt in Racine's Ph&egrav;dre—they convinced Gus it was time he took a break and head off with them to the south of France. Afterward, to commemorate the fellowship of the expedition, Saint-Gaudens made a mock-heroic Roman medallion six inches in diameter, featuring caricatures in relief of each of the three. Mock Latin tributes decorated the circumference. At the center was a large architect's T-square, at the base of which were inscribed the letters "KMA," believed to have been an abbreviation for "Kiss My Ass." Saint-Gaudens presented bronze reproductions to each of his two friends, and kept the third for himself.
WHEN SAINT-GAUDENS returned to work on the Farragut monument, White went with him to the studio to help with plans for the pedestal. For a while White stayed overnight at the apartment, until he found a place of his own. McKim lingered only a little while before returning to New York.
Saint-Gaudens struggled to "break away" with the Farragut and achieve something beyond the ordinary, a task that grew increasingly difficult as the artist became ever more demanding of himself. His Civil War memories from boyhood were strong within him. "I have such respect and admiration for the heroes of the Civil War," he had written earlier, "that I consider it my duty to help in any way to commemorate them in a noble and dignified fashion worthy of their great service."