- 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 once almost satisfied, the artist wrote of the Sherman Memorial, “I fall on my knees and adore it.”
When the Franco-Prussian War broke out, Saint-Gaudens’s mother was alarmed, and he pacified her by leaving Paris for Rome. There he found a ready market for his cameos among visiting wealthy Americans. He also embarked on a project dear to his heart: a statue of Hiawatha that he expected would be beloved throughout the world.
Saint-Gaudens had already begun his characteristic pattern: overestimating receipts while he worked toward some succès d’estime that would actually cost him money. Also characteristically, he found someone to bail him out, in this case a fellow American named Montgomery Gibbs, who agreed to advance the cost of casting the Hiawatha in plaster, in return for two portrait busts of his attractive young daughters. In addition, the New York governor, Edwin Morgan, who was visiting Rome in 1874, sought out the son of his old shoemaker and commissioned the Hiawatha in marble. Still, repeated attacks of an illness called Roman fever so often delayed his work that eventually Gibbs paid the young sculptor’s way back to New York for a visit with his family and the chance of finding further commissions. He traveled steerage, vowing that someday he would sail firstclass.
Through considerable enterprise, Saint-Gaudens won a commission for the Adams Express Company Building in Chicago: a large, semicircular panel of a bulldog accompanied by revolvers and bowie knives to assist him in guarding a couple of safes. Just before Saint-Gaudens left New York again, he was asked to do Silence, a marble figure of one of the “great Masonic virtues,” to adorn the New York City Masonic Lodge.
The young artist got the commission for a statue of Admiral Farragut “by the skin of the teeth.”
Soon after Saint-Gaudens returned to Rome, he met a handsome, partially deaf young woman named Augusta Homer, a sometime artist from Boston (and first cousin of the artist Winslow Homer), for whom he ultimately made the last of his cameos as an engagement ring. He had first to prove to himself that he could support her, however.
Saint-Gaudens had already spent three years in Rome. He was to stay another two. Although he had quickly created Silence as soon as he got back to Italy, workmen hired to cut it in marble spoiled the piece while he was off on a walking trip, and he had to start it again. While climbing the statue’s scaffold, he fell and injured his back. He finally returned to New York no better off financially, leaving behind his busts and statues, which his creditors attached against his debts. Only through the intervention of a friend was he able at last to get his works out of the country.
In New York he set up a studio in dreary quarters on the corner of Fourth Avenue and Fourteenth Street. Urged by his future in-laws to compete for a statue of Charles Summer in Boston, he lost—and vowed never to enter a competition again, and never did. Through the Homers, too, he met the big, ebullient architect H. H. Richardson. Then working on Trinity Church in Copley Square, Boston, Richardson engaged Saint-Gaudens as an assistant to the artist in charge of the interior, John La Farge. A native New Yorker of French parentage, La Farge bolstered Saint-Gaudens’s confidence by his belief in the younger man’s talent. At the same time, he implanted in Saint-Gaudens his own preoccupation with the details and setting of every project.
“Promptly, more good luck followed,” Saint-Gaudens reported. Tipped off by the former governor Edwin Morgan that a statue of Admiral Farragut was about to be commissioned, Saint-Gaudens asked the dean of American sculptors, J. Q. A. Ward, to put in a good word for him, unaware that Ward himself had been chosen. Ward, who really did not need the commission, admired Saint-Gaudens’s work and generously recommended him for the job. The younger artist got the commission “by the skin of the teeth.”
With the Farragut assignment, Saint-Gaudens could afford to marry. Two days after the wedding, he and his bride sailed for Liverpool, then set up housekeeping in Paris. In a former public ballroom that he made his studio, Saint-Gaudens went to work on the Farragut, on a tomb commissioned by Edwin Morgan, and on numerous bas-reliefs, including the first of his winsome reliefs of children.
The Saint-Gaudens apartment on the rue Herschel became a gathering place for expatriate American artists. The artist’s brother Louis lived with the young couple, as did, for six months, the architect Stanford White, who had been assigned to design the base for the Farragut and who was to become one of Saint-Gaudens’s closest friends. The two young men joined with White’s future partner, Charles McKim, for a joyous journey through the south of France. Along the way they picked up Samuel Clemens, who soon became one of the regulars at the Saint-Gaudenses’ gatherings, endlessly smoking his black cigars.