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Adventures in Paris

May 2024
13min read

American artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens finds inspiration in France to create one of America’s most iconic sculptures, a memorial to Civil War hero Adm. David Farragut

AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS came to Paris for the first time in 1867, the year it seemed the whole world came to Paris for the Exposition Universelle, the grand, gilded apogee of Second Empire exuberance. He arrived on an evening in February, by train after dark and apparently alone. He was 19 years old, a redheaded New York City boy, a shoemaker's son, who had been working since the age of 13. He was not one of the first ambitious young Americans to come to Paris following the Civil War. He was younger than most, however, and in background and the future he had in store, he was like no one else. Until then he had never been away from home.

The young man had more in mind than the exposition. He planned to enroll at the École des Beaux-Arts and remain in Paris as long as need be. Like young painter George Healymore than 30 years before, he had something he was determined to accomplish, and thus become accomplished himself. He considered himself bound to be a sculptor. That no American had ever been accepted as a student in sculpture at the École did not deter him. But first he needed a job. In his pocket he had $100 saved for him by his father from his own small wages.

ON HIS 13th birthday, Saint Gaudens's father had told him that he would need to work; the boy had therefore become the apprentice of cameo cutter Louis Avet. Cameos for men were much in style as scarf pins, with the heads of dogs, horses, and lions—lion heads were especially in demand—cut from amethyst and other stones. Gus worked 10-hour days and spent the first part of his apprenticeship polishing the backgrounds of stone cameos cut by his master, but was soon allowed to do more, including custom colored cameo portraits on conch shells.

The art of cutting cameos was a species of sculpture rather than engraving. The artisan worked at a small bench with a multitude of steel engraving tools, or burins, with different-shaped points, these powered by a foot pedal that the cutter pumped as one did a sewing machine. The piece of stone or shell was fixed with cement to a stick, to hold it fast while the cutter worked. His work on cameos led Gus to seek a career as a sculptor. Not only did he like giving physical dimension to a subject; he had come to appreciate the importance of faces.

His apprenticeship years were also the years of the Civil War, and the day-to-day presence, the excitement and tragedy, of the war were seldom out of mind. Soldiers thronged the streets. Once, from an open window at Avet's workshop, the boy had watched a whole contingent of New England volunteers march down Broadway on their way to war, singing "John Brown's Body." Another day he saw "Grant himself" with his slouch hat parade by on horseback. Greatest of all was the thrill of seeing President Lincoln, who with his height seemed "entirely out of proportion" with the carriage in which he rode.

IN PARIS SAINT-GAUDENS moved in at first with his uncle François, his father's brother, on the avenue de la Grande-ArmÉe, and "at once" found a part-time job working for an Italian cameo cutter in Montmartre.

As promised, the glittering Exposition Universelle of 1867 proved bigger and more spectacular than anything the world had yet seen. One giant, oval-shaped, glass-and-cast-iron exhibition "palace" and more than 100 smaller buildings filled most of the vast Champ de Mars on the Left Bank. More than 50,000 exhibitors took part. The theme was "objects for the improvement of the physical and moral condition of the masses." By the time the fair closed, on the last day of October, 11 million people—more than twice the number who had attended the Exposition Universelle of 1855—had poured across the Pont d'IÉna to the banner-festooned main entrance on the Quai d'Orsay.

The number and importance of contemporary paintings and sculptures on exhibit surpassed anything seen before in one place. Though the American section of the Fine Arts Department was quite modest compared to that of the French, it was larger than it had been at the exposition of 1855 and contained a number of works that, in time, would rank as masterpieces. The most admiring crowds gathered about two enormous, dramatic landscapes (both befitting subjects for America, it was felt): Albert Bierstadt's The Rocky Mountains and Frederic Church's Niagara Falls, the only American painting to be honored with a silvermedal. Among several works evoking the Civil War from a Northern point of view were John Ferguson Weir's The Gun Foundry, showing the munitions works near West Point, and Winslow Homer's Prisoners from the Front, in which three Confederate prisoners under guard stand before a Northern general.

Regrettably, there isn't any account of how much of the exposition Saint-Gaudens saw. Probably he lacked money enough to attend more than once or twice. But with his zest for getting "his money's worth," he doubtless covered a lot of ground, and he did see something of lifelong importance to him. It was a small bronze, a standing figure by the French sculptor Paul Dubois, of St. John the Baptist as a Child. It "seemed extraordinary to me," he would write years afterward, and Dubois's work and Dubois himself were to have "profound" influence.

WHEN A FORMAL notification arrived, informing Augustus Saint-Gaudens that he had been admitted to the École des Beaux-Arts after a wait of nine months, he enrolled immediately in the atelier of François Jouffroy. Just as students in painting at the École, such as Thomas Eakins, aspired to study under Jean-LÉon Gérôme, master of the classical mode, who put great stress on drawing the human figure, so for those who would be sculptors, Jouffroy's atelier was, as Saint-Gaudens said, "the triumphant one."

Jouffroy was 62, the son of a baker, tall, dark, and spare, "with little, intelligent black eyes," as Saint-Gaudens remembered. Concentrated effort at modeling and drawing day after day for three years produced clear progress. Jouffroy, while not a sculptor of the highest rank, was an exceptional teacher, and his atelier was a center for what was the new movement in sculpture in France, which took its inspiration fromthe Italian Renaissance. In this regard, Saint-Gaudens had come to his studies in Paris at a highly advantageous time.

It was then, too, in his student years in Paris that he reached certain conclusions about work that were to stand as his guiding principles, and that he was one day, in turn, to stress again and again to students of his own:

IN THE MID-1870s Saint-Gaudens learned of plans to create a memorial in New York City to Adm. David Glasgow Farragut—"Damn the Torpedoes" Farragut, the Civil War hero of the Battle of Mobile Bay, which had resulted in the surrender of New Orleans. A committee had been formed to pick a sculptor. A sum of $9,000 was said to be available from the city. Saint-Gaudens applied at once and contacted everyone he knew who might put in a word for him.

To do a man like Farragut justice in bronze would be no easy undertaking. The admiral had had as long and distinguished a career as any officer since the founding of the U.S. Navy. The son of a naval officer, he had gone to sea with the Navy at age 10, even briefly commanded a captured ship at the age of 12. Serving on ships of the line, he had seen much of the world before he was 20.

He was resourceful and intelligent—without benefit of formal schooling, he learned to speak French, Italian, Spanish, and Arabic—and, above all, courageous. By the outbreak of the Civil War he had served in the Navy nearly 50 years. When assigned to capture New Orleans, he commanded the largest fleet to have sailed under the American flag, and at the war's end he became the first man ever to hold the rank of full admiral in the U.S. Navy.

"I have made two models, a large drawing and a bust," Saint-Gaudens wrote. "As far as I can see I am in a fair way to have the commission." His career and his marriage to a young woman he had recently met in Rome were riding on it. And he got it.

Of the $9,000, he was to receive $2,000 on signing the agreement, $3,000 on completion of the statue in clay, $2,000 when the statue was cast in bronze, and a final check for $2,000 on delivery of the finished work to New York. Later he would record in an account book, "On hand June 1, 1877 when I was married, [$]2,821.00."

Paris was essential to the work, Gus believed, not only because the "art current" ran stronger there, but because sculpture as an art form was taken more seriously than at home, and experienced craftsmen—plaster molders, foundrymen, and the like—were plentiful. The project at hand was greater and more challenging by far than anything he had ever undertaken, and he would need the best help he could get.

Working as never before and needing more space, Gus leased a huge, barnlike studio on the Left Bank at 49 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, at the center of a growing community of American artists. The new studio had once been a public dance hall, and with 14 windows overhead, each 10 feet square, there was plenty of light.

EARLY IN 1878, hearing that his young architect friend Stanford White was planning a trip to Europe, Saint-Gaudens wrote to say he was "pegging away" at the Farragut, but that the limited interest of his subject's clothing made the job "a hard tug." From the point of view of sculpture, Saint-Gaudens disliked modern clothing. Here he had only a cap, sword, field glasses, belt, and buttons to work with—not much, he lamented, adding, "When you come over I want to talk with you about the pedestal. Perhaps something might be done with that."

White's response came at once: "I hope you will let me help you with the Farragut pedestal... Then I should go down to Fame, even if it is bad, reviled for making a poor base for a good statue." In June, White reported that he was on his way to Paris and that their mutual friend Charles McKim was coming, too.

They arrived in midsummer 1878, and after extended discussions with the sculptor in his crowded "ballroom studio" and much conviviality with Gus, his wife, and friends—dining at Foyot's, a favorite restaurant of students beside the Luxembourg Gardens, seeing Sarah Bernhardt in Racine's Ph&egrav;dre—they convinced Gus it was time he took a break and head off with them to the south of France. Afterward, to commemorate the fellowship of the expedition, Saint-Gaudens made a mock-heroic Roman medallion six inches in diameter, featuring caricatures in relief of each of the three. Mock Latin tributes decorated the circumference. At the center was a large architect's T-square, at the base of which were inscribed the letters "KMA," believed to have been an abbreviation for "Kiss My Ass." Saint-Gaudens presented bronze reproductions to each of his two friends, and kept the third for himself.

WHEN SAINT-GAUDENS returned to work on the Farragut monument, White went with him to the studio to help with plans for the pedestal. For a while White stayed overnight at the apartment, until he found a place of his own. McKim lingered only a little while before returning to New York.

Saint-Gaudens struggled to "break away" with the Farragut and achieve something beyond the ordinary, a task that grew increasingly difficult as the artist became ever more demanding of himself. His Civil War memories from boyhood were strong within him. "I have such respect and admiration for the heroes of the Civil War," he had written earlier, "that I consider it my duty to help in any way to commemorate them in a noble and dignified fashion worthy of their great service."

It was the largest piece Saint-Gaudens had yet attempted, and the wonder is that someone who had begun as a cameo cutter and mastered that tiny, exacting craft to such perfection could now, not so long afterward, undertake a project of such colossal scale. But the lessons of cameo cutting, of working "in the small," were not to be dismissed, even when working so large.

His inspiration had been the taller-than-life marble St. George by the Italian Renaissance sculptor Donatello, which he had seen in Florence and never forgotten. Donatello was his hero, second only to Michelangelo, and the effect of the St. George, of a man standing in repose yet clearly ready to take on the world, was just what Saint-Gaudens hoped to attain with his Farragut.

The work had begun with a clay study of a nude figure two feet high. "Don't leave any serious study to struggle with in the big," was another of Saint-Gauden's working rules. It was in the small scale model that the most serious attentions must be focused, "the whole ensemble together in the small," he liked to say.

The procedure was then to enlarge the two-foot figure to life-size and again in clay, but supported now by an armature of iron braces. Once work on the life-size statue was complete, it would serve as the model for still another statue of more than eight feet in height, this again done in clay and with an even heavier armature.

The giant clay figure would require still more work before a plaster mold could be made, in sections, from which a giant plaster statue would then be cast, and it in turn would need considerable final fine-tuning before being taken to the foundry to be cast in bronze. At every stage it was a complex process involving many others besides the sculptor, and it took much time and close attention.

The subject of all these efforts, David Glasgow Farragut, was a man Saint-Gaudens had never known, never laid eyes on.He had only pictures to go by—photographs and engravings—plus descriptions provided by the admiral's widow and son. As he would also admit privately, "I don't fully understand about the sea."

In real life the hero had stood about five feet six. To transpose the life-size clay model into its final heroic scale required that hundreds of measurements be made with calipers, and so a large scaffold had to be built beside the statue from which the workers could reach the figure's uppermost portions.

But the mathematics of the system and even the most skilled use of calipers were never sufficient in and of themselves. The artist's eye and the desire to breathe life into the clay had to be the deciding factors at almost every stage. The finished work had to convey the reality and importance of a singular personality. It had to be more than "a good likeness." It had to express the character of the man.

The admiral's buttons and braid, his cap and sword, all had to be true to fact and a natural part of him, like his stance. Greater still was the importance of the face and head, which, unlike a portrait on canvas, had to look right from every angle. The whole work must look right from every angle.

The work fell steadily further behind schedule.

By June the sculptor had moved on to the flap on the admiral's coat, intending that it appear to be blowing in the wind. To his wife, Gussie, it was a marvel how he made the silk lining and the cloth of the coat look as if made of silk and cloth.

Much of great importance had still to be resolved, not the least of which were the final height and location of the monument. Correspondence between Gus and White continued. There were questions about the kind of stone to be used for the pedestal and the design of two relief angels representing Courage and Loyalty that Gus was to do.

Through the whole slow, drawn-out process, the great volume of clay had to be kept constantly moist on the surface. If it were allowed to dry out, the statue would crack. December brought snows in Paris over a foot deep. The Seine froze over, and the worry inside the studio was that the wet claymight freeze and the statue crack. Two large coal stoves had to be kept burning and the temperature in the room and the surface of the clay carefully monitored day and night.

By the last week of January 1880, the work in clay was nearly done to the satisfaction of the sculptor—all but for one troublesome leg. "One of Farragut's legs has always bothered him and I am afraid he has used a great many swear words about it," Gussie wrote, "but yesterday for the first time he got the leg and trousers to suit him and when I went up to the studio he was singing, so I knew that he was very happy about something."

The admiral stood eight feet, three inches tall, his legs apart, the left leg (the one giving the most trouble) slightly back fromthe right, the toes of the great 14-inch-long shoes pointed nearly straight ahead. The sword hanging from his left side and the field glasses grasped in the large left hand were also of heroic proportions.

He stood as if on deck at sea, braced for whatever was to come, chin up, eyes straight ahead. The flap of his long double-breasted coat seemed truly to blow open with the wind, and the back of the coat, too, billowed out. And while due attention was paid to the braid on the sleeves, the buttons, belt, and straps that held the sword, there was an overall, prevailing simplicity that conveyed great inner strength, no less than the presence of an actual mortal being, for all the figure's immense size. The admiral had missed buttoning the third button on his coat, for example.

The intent, weatherbeaten face said the most. The look on the face, like the latent power in the stance, left no doubt that this was a man in command.

Casting the statue in plaster was scheduled to begin on Monday, February 9. "There are nineteen great bags of plaster here," Gussie reported from the studio, "and any quantity of bars of iron and they will all go into the statue. They will be four days making the mold and then . . . the plaster statue will be cast." By the middle of May the plaster statue was ready to be moved to the long-established Gruet Foundry, there to be cast in bronze. It was not only essential that such a foundry be experienced, Saint-Gaudens insisted, but that he be on hand to supervise the entire process. The cost was a substantial $1,200, as Gussie wrote to her parents.

Taking part in the whole process day after day at the foundry, Saint-Gaudens became a nervous wreck. Two weeks later, when the lower half of the statue was cast, something went wrong, and it had to be done all over, at considerable expense. When at last the whole cast was done, the statue complete in bronze, its entire outer surface had to be expertly finished, with, as Saint-Gaudens wanted, the admiral's buttons and insignia given a slightly brighter gloss.

Finally the completed work—weighing 900 pounds—had to be carefully packed up, shipped by rail to Le Havre, and sent on its way aboard ship to New York. It was the largest work of sculpture in bronze by an American ever shipped from France until then.

With White he had worked out the design for the pedestal, which the commission accepted aftermuch wrangling. It would place the statue fully nine feet above ground level and include tall, slightly curved stone facades reaching out to either side, these to provide a comfortable place to sit (an exedra, as it was known) as well as space for the two large allegorical figures in relief representing Loyalty and Courage, combined with a motif of fish and waves at sea. This entire composition was being done in Hudson River bluestone, with the thought that its color would add further to the nautical theme. A lettered tribute to the admiral, composed by White's father, was also to be included.

The relief figures of Loyalty and Courage were major works unto themselves, in which Augustus's brother Louis took part. They were seated figures as large in scale as Farragut, their arms reaching out three feet. They were beautiful and unadorned, with the look of twin sisters, though the expression on the face of Courage was a touchmore resolute and she wore breast armor, while Loyalty was partly bare-breasted. It was a pedestal unlike any ever seen in New York or anywhere else in the United States.

THE GRAND UNVEILING took place at Madison Square on the afternoon of May 25, 1881. AMarine band played; sailors marched. The celebrated New York attorney and orator Joseph H. Choate delivered an extended tribute to the admiral, and 10,000 people stood in the hot sun through the length of it.

Seated on the speakers' platform, along with some 45 " notables "—including Mrs. Farragut, the mayor, the governor, church pastors, admirals, generals, and commissioners—could be seen the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens and his wife. It was his first experience with public acclaim, and it was happening in his own hometown.

The monument was a stunning success. The critics were exuberant, the whole art world electrified. The New York Times hailed the Farragut with the headline "A BEAUTIFUL AND REMARKABLE WORK OF ART, AND MR. SAINT-GAUDENS'S TRIUMPH." The two basrelief figures of Loyalty and Courage ought to be ranked among the finest achievements of sculpture in America, the Times continued. "The faces are naturally . . . and most carefully worked. Here a weak man would fail."

The character of the indomitable admiral "shines from the sculptured face," wrote the critic for the New York Evening Post. The sculptor's work impressed one not as a statue but as a livingman. "The spectator does not feel the bronze, he does not feel the sculptor; he feels the presence of the Admiral himself."

A few days after the unveiling, at about midnight, Saint-Gaudens, Gussie, and a friend were walking up Fifth Avenue, on their way home from a party. As they approached Madi son Square, they saw an elderly man standing alone in the moonlight, looking at the statue. Recognizing his father, Saint-Gaudens went to him and asked what he was doing there at such an hour.

"Oh, you go about your business!" his father answered. "Haven't I got a right to be here?"

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