- 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
After three years in France, the sculptor and his wife returned to the United States in July of 1880. In September their son, Homer, was born in Boston at the home of Augusta Saint-Gaudens’s parents, while Saint-Gaudens himself remained behind in New York, once again trying to scrape up commissions, as he was not to be paid for the Farragut until its unveiling. Through his mentor, La Farge, he was hired to design decorations for the new Vanderbilt mansion at Fifty-seventh Street and Fifth Avenue, among them caryatids for the mantel and a series of family bas-reliefs. (At an estimated sixteen to twenty thousand dollars, Saint-Gaudens’s share of the project was only about twice what a Vanderbilt would expect to pay for a fancy dress costume.)
On May 26, 1881, before tens of thousands of New Yorkers, Saint-Gaudens’s Farragut was unveiled in Madison Square Park. One hand holding a field glass, the admiral stood at the center of the Stanford White pedestal as on the bridge of a ship, the skirt of his uniform coat lifting in the wind. Below the bronze statue, in relief, Saint-Gaudens had modeled, in the stone base, figures of “Courage” and “Loyalty,” resting in a fluent sweep of waves. The crowd cheered, and the reporter from the New York Herald wrote that the monument at once “took its place in the very front rank of the few fine ones in the country.”
Saint-Gaudens now established his young family at 22 Washington Place near Union Square in a seventh-floor walk-up where they were to live for eleven years. Through H. H. Richardson, Saint-Gaudens had been introduced, shortly after his return to America, to the Boston committee seeking an artist for a memorial to Col. Robert Gould Shaw. Shaw had died charging Fort Wagner at the head of the 54th Massachusetts, the first Northern black regiment to fight in the Civil War. In 1884 he finally got the commission, promising to complete it in two years. It was to take fourteen. He rented a large studio on Thirty-sixth Street for the Shaw, but, never satisfied, continually interrupted it to do other work, including a standing Abraham Lincoln for Lincoln Park in Chicago.
By the age of thirty-seven Saint-Gaudens had begun to realize that there was an appealing world beyond the city streets, and he began a search for a summer home. He found it in Cornish, New Hampshire, where a friend convinced him he would find “plenty of Lincoln-shaped men.” There he made sketches for the standing Lincoln and for a seated Lincoln that he was later to complete as well. Little by little a summer colony grew up around his studio in Cornish, bringing further happy distractions from his work. It included not only such artists as Maxfield Parrish but also the American novelist Winston Churchill. For his friend Stanford White, Saint-Gaudens made a bas-relief of White’s fiancée, Bessie Springs Smith, as a wedding gift. A great dog lover, he did a relief of his own deerhound, Dunrobin. He modeled his own little son, both in bronze and in marble. In 1887 he sought out Robert Louis Stevenson, whom he greatly admired, and modeled him reclining in tubercular fatigue. While Saint-Gaudens was working on Stevenson, he was also creating a bust of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, whom Stevenson was eager to meet. Saint-Gaudens arranged it, and, after some initial confusion when Sherman asked, “Is he one of my boys?” the writer and general were soon deep in a discussion of battle tactics.
Meantime Henry Adams commissioned Saint-Gaudens to design a bronze statue in memory of his wife, Marian Hooper Adams (known as Clover), who had committed suicide. The historian gave Saint-Gaudens only the most general instructions. “The whole meaning and feeling of the figure is in its universality and anonymity,” Adams wrote. “With the understanding that there shall be no such attempt at making it intelligible to the average mind, and no hint at ownership or personal relation, I hand it over....” Nevertheless the sculptor begged Adams at least to see the face of the figure in clay: ”... the face is an instrument on which different strains can be played, and I may have struck a key in a direction quite different from your feeling in the matter.” Adams refused. In the end Saint-Gaudens created an almost androgynous figure, covered in the folds of a garment with only a “stern and forbidding profile” visible, as one French critic described it. “Wholly absorbed in her reverie she is the image of Eternity and Meditation … and among that people of frantic energy, she tells of the nothingness into which life is at last resolved.” Secretary of State John Hay called the work “St.-Gaudens’ masterpiece.” Adams visited the memorial time and again to hear the admiring or horrified comments of a bewildered public. In token of Adams’s “outward gruffness and inward gentleness,” Hay and Saint-Gaudens dubbed him “Porcupinus Poeticus.” The sculptor addressed him as “old Poeticus under a Bushelibus,” and “dear old stick in the mud.”