- 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
As the work progressed, Colonel Shaw grew from a basrelief almost to a statue in the round.
Saint-Gaudens was given to using nicknames (Stanford White was “Old Hoss,” or “Bianco”) and proved a warm and imaginatively generous friend. Once, when he realized that both Walt Whitman and photographer George Cox were on their uppers, he had Cox photograph the poet and Whitman sign the pictures, and the resulting sale helped both men.
Diana, in the 13-foot version, became the weathervane atop Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden.
Although the sculptor never learned to smoke and was only a moderate drinker, his group of New York friends eventually turned him into an ardent clubman, with memberships in the Tile, the Century, the Lambs, and the Players. He retained withal a boyishness characterized by his inordinate fondness for ice cream, a trait he shared with Charles McKim, somewhat to the embarrassment of their scotchand-soda friend, Stanford White. Saint-Gaudens was said to have had a tempering influence on the more rambunctious White, but at least once he succumbed to the sort of temptation for which White became famous: he had a son by one of his models, a dreamlike young woman named Davida Johnson Clark. When, years later, Augusta Saint-Gaudens learned of this, her husband wrote her a moving letter of adoration that apparently, after some estrangement, placated her. Something of a hypochondriac and always preoccupied with the ill health that frequently took her away from her husband on some cure, Augusta Saint-Gaudens was also an excellent cook and a thrifty and shrewd money manager who tenaciously protected her husband’s interests. Through a sometimes stormy and occasionally precarious marriage, she kept the family solvent and, by her investments, ultimately made them very prosperous. It was she who made sure, after his death, that Saint-Gaudens’s works were properly displayed.
Although he held the era’s conventional view that women learn faster than men but are less creative, Augustus Saint-Gaudens nurtured his women assistants with as much care as the men, and his bas-reliefs and sculptures of women, particularly the allegorical figures, rank with his best works. Among those for which Davida Clark sat was the Amor Caritas, originally planned for the Morgan tomb, which was cast in bronze and purchased by the French government. It is now in the Louvre. Davida also posed for the original eighteen-foot Diana, the ethe-real gilded nude that became, in a thirteen-foot version, the weathervane atop Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden. (After her billowing draperies blew off, the Diana was anchored and could no longer swing with every wind.) When Madison Square Garden was torn down in 1925, Diana went into storage until it was given to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Almost as soon as the thirteen-foot version was in place, Saint-Gaudens began making reductions in thirty-one-and twenty-one-inch sizes, casts of which survive in museums and private collections in New York, New Hampshire, Ohio, Indiana, and Oklahoma.
The rival to the Adams Memorial for Saint-Gaudens’s finest work is the Shaw Memorial, which preoccupied him for many years. “A sculptor’s work endures for so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power to execute a result that will not be a disgrace,” he said once, in a rare comment on his art. “There is something extraordinarily irritating when it is not ludicrous, in a bad statue.”
When the parents of Gen. Robert Gould Shaw modestly demurred at Saint-Gaudens’s eagerness for an equestrian statue, he settled on a base-relief that could be completed for the fifteen thousand dollars collected for the memorial. Instead, as his interest increased, so did the piece, until the colonel on horseback grew to almost a “statue in the round,” and the black soldiers took on more and more importance. Saint-Gaudens modeled their heads from life, choosing as many as forty blacks of different African, heritages before settling on the sixteen in the final version. The logistics of the work were extraordinary and, at times, even hilarious. The horse he bought as a model for the colonel’s mount snorted, bucked, and reared. Some of his models were terrified by the disembodied plaster heads he had strewn about.
By the time the Shaw was finally unveiled, on Memorial Day, 1897, some of the original Boston committee members had died, and those veterans of the regiment still alive were old and gray. Saint-Gaudens was there to see them march up Beacon Hill again to salute the flag-covered statue and to hear “John Brown’s Body” played once more. “The impression of those old soldiers passing the very spot where they left for the war so many years before, thrills me even as 1 write these words,” he said in notes for his autobiography. A month after the unveiling, Harvard gave the sculptor an honorary degree, only one of many honors then pouring in upon him.