- 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
It was the largest piece Saint-Gaudens had yet attempted, and the wonder is that someone who had begun as a cameo cutter and mastered that tiny, exacting craft to such perfection could now, not so long afterward, undertake a project of such colossal scale. But the lessons of cameo cutting, of working "in the small," were not to be dismissed, even when working so large.
His inspiration had been the taller-than-life marble St. George by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello, which he had seen in Florence and never forgotten. Donatello was his hero, second only to Michelangelo, and the effect of the St. George, of a man standing in repose yet clearly ready to take on the world, was just what Saint-Gaudens hoped to attain with his Farragut.
The work had begun with a clay study of a nude figure two feet high. "Don't leave any serious study to struggle with in the big," was another of Saint-Gauden's working rules. It was in the small scale model that the most serious attentions must be focused, "the whole ensemble together in the small," he liked to say.
The procedure was then to enlarge the two-foot figure to life-size and again in clay, but supported now by an armature of iron braces. Once work on the life-size statue was complete, it would serve as the model for still another statue of more than eight feet in height, this again done in clay and with an even heavier armature.
The giant clay figure would require still more work before a plaster mold could be made, in sections, from which a giant plaster statue would then be cast, and it in turn would need considerable final fine-tuning before being taken to the foundry to be cast in bronze. At every stage it was a complex process involving many others besides the sculptor, and it took much time and close attention.
The subject of all these efforts, David Glasgow Farragut, was a man Saint-Gaudens had never known, never laid eyes on.He had only pictures to go by—photographs and engravings—plus descriptions provided by the admiral's widow and son. As he would also admit privately, "I don't fully understand about the sea."
In real life the hero had stood about five feet six. To transpose the life-size clay model into its final heroic scale required that hundreds of measurements be made with calipers, and so a large scaffold had to be built beside the statue from which the workers could reach the figure's uppermost portions.
But the mathematics of the system and even the most skilled use of calipers were never sufficient in and of themselves. The artist's eye and the desire to breathe life into the clay had to be the deciding factors at almost every stage. The finished work had to convey the reality and importance of a singular personality. It had to be more than "a good likeness." It had to express the character of the man.
The admiral's buttons and braid, his cap and sword, all had to be true to fact and a natural part of him, like his stance. Greater still was the importance of the face and head, which, unlike a portrait on canvas, had to look right from every angle. The whole work must look right from every angle.
The work fell steadily further behind schedule.
By June the sculptor had moved on to the flap on the admiral's coat, intending that it appear to be blowing in the wind. To his wife, Gussie, it was a marvel how he made the silk lining and the cloth of the coat look as if made of silk and cloth.
Much of great importance had still to be resolved, not the least of which were the final height and location of the monument. Correspondence between Gus and White continued. There were questions about the kind of stone to be used for the pedestal and the design of two relief angels representing Courage and Loyalty that Gus was to do.
Through the whole slow, drawn-out process, the great volume of clay had to be kept constantly moist on the surface. If it were allowed to dry out, the statue would crack. December brought snows in Paris over a foot deep. The Seine froze over, and the worry inside the studio was that the wet claymight freeze and the statue crack. Two large coal stoves had to be kept burning and the temperature in the room and the surface of the clay carefully monitored day and night.
By the last week of January 1880, the work in clay was nearly done to the satisfaction of the sculptor—all but for one troublesome leg. "One of Farragut's legs has always bothered him and I am afraid he has used a great many swear words about it," Gussie wrote, "but yesterday for the first time he got the leg and trousers to suit him and when I went up to the studio he was singing, so I knew that he was very happy about something."
The admiral stood eight feet, three inches tall, his legs apart, the left leg (the one giving the most trouble) slightly back fromthe right, the toes of the great 14-inch-long shoes pointed nearly straight ahead. The sword hanging from his left side and the field glasses grasped in the large left hand were also of heroic proportions.
He stood as if on deck at sea, braced for whatever was to come, chin up, eyes straight ahead. The flap of his long double-breasted coat seemed truly to blow open with the wind, and the back of the coat, too, billowed out. And while due attention was paid to the braid on the sleeves, the buttons, belt, and straps that held the sword, there was an overall, prevailing simplicity that conveyed great inner strength, no less than the presence of an actual mortal being, for all the figure's immense size. The admiral had missed buttoning the third button on his coat, for example.
The intent, weatherbeaten face said the most. The look on the face, like the latent power in the stance, left no doubt that this was a man in command.