June/july 1985 | Volume 36, Issue 4
His works ranged from intimate cameos to heroic public monuments. America has produced no greater sculptor.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.