- Historic Sites
His works ranged from intimate cameos to heroic public monuments. America has produced no greater sculptor.
June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
For the “mysterious aura” of his art, a critic has compared him to Thomas Eakins. In the “haunting grandeur” of his sculpture, he is the equal of Auguste Rodin. Both historian and idealist, an artist whose work encompasses realism and allegory, Augustus Saint-Gaudens satisfied popular taste while managing to grow steadily as an artist. An American pioneer in moving sculpture from single to multiple figures and from carved stone to cast bronze, he completed more than two hundred commissions over a thirty-year working life. They range from decorations for a Vanderbilt mantelpiece and billiard-room panels to fountains, tombs, and the thirteen-foot nude Diana atop New York’s Madison Square Garden, which the historian John A. Kouwenhoven considers “probably the best-loved statue ever erected in the city.” They could be as small as the twenty-dollar gold piece—acknowledged to be the most beautiful American coin—and as large as the sculptured plaques for a sixty-foot-high pink granite pyramid on Sherman Summit, Wyoming, honoring Oliver and Oakes Ames. His works survive him all across America and, abroad, in Dublin, Edinburgh, and Paris. His living subjects included Mrs. Grover Cleveland, William Dean Howells, and Robert Louis Stevenson; his posthumous ones, Abraham Lincoln and Marian Hooper Adams. A monument to the latter, in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C., may be his most extraordinary achievement, rivaled only by his Shaw Memorial, the most moving work of art to come out of the Civil War. His bronze bas-reliefs are the finest since the Renaissance, his sculpture some of the most magnificent of all time. Unquestionably, Saint-Gaudens was the preeminent sculptor of his day. Now his reputation seems certain to be fortified by an exhibition to be mounted this autumn at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (which held his first major exhibition, in 1908).
Born March 1,1848, in Dublin, Ireland, to Bernard Saint-Gaudens, an itinerant cobbler from the south of France, and his Irish wife, Mary McGuiness, of Bally Mahon, County Longford, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the third of five boys, and the first to survive childhood. He was little more than six months old when he was brought to the United States, and he believed for years that he was a native New Yorker.
“Red-headed, whopper-jawed, and hopeful,” as he described himself, the young Saint-Gaudens hustled his father’s “French Ladies’ Boots and Shoes” to the homes of New York’s prominent families —Astors and Belmonts, Greeleys and Morgans. “Unusually combative and morose,” he had constant fights with rival neighborhood gangs and got frequent lickings for such rowdiness as biting a classmate’s finger or smearing blackboard chalk all over his face. He hooked rides to work on the backs of passing sleighs, absorbing everything he saw: the brawny men in a cellar across from his home, rhythmically beating gold into leaf for gilding eagles; volunteer fire companies vying to see whose hose could throw the highest stream of water. He even noticed the broom that “decorated the triumphant engine.”
His youth was filled with what he called the “great visions and great remembrances” of his day: the procession that celebrated the laying of the Atlantic cable; the campaign carts that carried wooden fences for “Honest Abe, the Rail-Splitter”; the newly elected President, grave, tall, and dark, being driven through the streets on his way to Washington; New England volunteers singing “John Brown’s Body” as they tramped off to the Civil War (“a spectacle profoundly impressive, even to my youthful imagination”); cavalry horses tethered to the trees in Madison Square; the silent, foreboding cannons at the ends of the streets during the draft riots; and his parents in tears after Lincoln’s death. At eighteen, Saint-Gaudens stood in line outside City Hall to view the President’s body, then returned to the end of the line for another glimpse of that face. From the first, he was preoccupied by people’s heads, especially that of his earliest model, which he described as the “typical long, generous, loving Irish face” of his beautiful mother.
He had to work from the age of thirteen. After a customer admired his drawings of the workmen in his father’s shop, he was allowed to follow his artistic bent and was apprenticed to a cameo-maker. From polishing stones and running errands he graduated to carving cameos himself: so many lion’s heads that he could do them automatically. He also picked up his boss’s intense absorption, his explosive temper, and the habit of singing at his work. The boy also went to the free evening art classes at Cooper Union, returning home to draw far into the night. He moved on to study at the National Academy of Design.
Fired by his first employer for leaving crumbs on the floor, Saint-Gaudens found another cameo-maker, one who also taught him to model in clay. He was a reasonably contented apprentice, except for one thing: he longed to see the Paris Exposition of 1867. His father contributed the fare by refunding money Saint-Gaudens paid his parents for room and board. Once abroad, the young artist supported himself by working for yet another cameo-maker while he settled into study at the Ecole des Beaux Arts.