- 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
Still not satisfied that his work met the high standards he had been taught abroad, Saint-Gaudens went back to Paris in November of 1897, there to spend another three and a half years. When his great equestrian statue of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and its accompanying figure, “Victory,” were exhibited at the Exposition Universelle, the French were ecstatic and in 1901 gave him the Legion of Honor. Even Saint-Gaudens himself was almost satisfied. “1 have got a swelled head for the first time in my life,” he wrote his son. “I have become a harmless, drooling, gibbering idiot, sitting all day long looking at the statue. Occasionally I fall on my knees and adore it.”
Inevitably he made endless changes in the Sherman. The general’s cloak, alone, was modeled from countless tiny cloaks Augusta Saint-Gaudens sewed for him. It was typical of Saint-Gaudens to be preoccupied with every fold of every garment. Even after he returned to America, he set up a replica of the Sherman in his Cornish studio and sent changes back to Paris for insertion in the bronze.
Saint-Gaudens’s last Paris stay was plagued by a strange melancholy that, try as he might, he could not throw off. When doctors told him he was desperately ill and needed surgery for an intestinal tumor, he returned to America in the summer of 1900 for an operation at the Massachusetts General Hospital. It prolonged his life for another seven years, but he never lived in New York again. In increasing pain, he presided over an atelier of assistants at his Cornish home. There he did two versions of the seated Lincoln for Chicago and began a Charles Stewart Parnell memorial for Dublin (the first seated Lincoln, and much of the Parnell, were destroyed when a fire demolished Saint-Gaudens’s studio). At the request of President Theodore Roosevelt, the sculptor also created a new one-cent piece and ten-and twenty-dollar gold pieces.
During his Cornish years Saint-Gaudens, despite his illness, emphasized in his letters the joys rather than the sorrows of his life: in the crisp winter snow, “sun brilliant and supreme, sleighs, sleighbells galore, and a cheerfulness that brings back visions of the halcyon winter days of my boyhood.” “Whatever caused him anger or worry or pain, he invariably attempted to make over into a jest,” his son said of him later. Calling his atelier an “insane asylum” with himself the “boss lunatic,” Saint-Gaudens entitled his own memoirs Reminiscences of an Idiot. He was never to finish them, dying August 3, 1907, at age fifty-nine, still at work on some figures for the Boston Public Library.
A renegade from his native Roman Catholicism, which he found too gloomy, Saint-Gaudens rediscovered his faith in one of the last two pieces of sculpture he touched with his own hands: a head of Christ to accompany his statue of the famous preacher Phillips Brooks. (Seeking, as usual, every biography he could find to describe his subject, he finally asked Henry Adams for advice as to the best source on Jesus. Adams dryly suggested the Bible.) As he worked on the Christ, it began to stand no longer for a “cult that announced bewildering self-contradictions and endless punishment of sin, but became the man of men, a teacher of peace and happiness.” The final face of the Messiah also embodied the sense of mystery with which Saint-Gaudens endowed even the most vigorous and lively of his works.
Sadness, though, was never his theme. “It seems as if we are all in one open boat on the ocean, abandoned and drifting, no one knows where,” Saint-Gaudens said once, “and while doing all we can to get somewhere, it is better to be cheerful than to be melancholy; the latter does not help the situation, and the former cheers up one’s comrades.... Love and courage are the great things.... The thing to do is to try and do good, and any serious and earnest effort seems to me to be, to our limited vision, a drop in the ocean of evolution to something better.”
The face of a statue, the artist said, “is an instrument on which different strains can be played.”
Always striving for something better, Saint-Gaudens also left behind another last work, uncompleted. It is a meticulous bas-relief of his erect and austere wife, with the family dog at her knee. Typical of Saint-Gaudens’s skill, warmth, and humor, the head of the faithful hound looks remarkably like the leonine head of the sculptor himself.