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Reading 1: Who Was Augustus Saint-Gaudens?
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1848, the year of the Potato Famine. His father, Bernard, was a shoemaker, originally from the little village of Aspet in the foothills of the Pyrenees, in France. After moving to London and then on to Dublin, Bernard Saint-Gaudens met and married Mary McGuinness. Six months after the birth of Augustus, Bernard took his family to the United States, settling in New York City. When Augustus finished schooling at 13, he was apprenticed to a French cameo-cutter in New York. (A cameo is a medallion with a profile cut in raised relief.) Through his teens the boy labored long days in his master's shop, and studied nights at the Cooper Union art school. Later he studied at the National Academy of Design near his home.
When Saint-Gaudens was 19, his father offered him a chance to see the Exposition of 1867 in Paris. International exhibitions were extremely popular in the late 19th century, the period of the Gilded Age. Some of these were limited to works of art. In others, such as the World's Columbian Exposition, displays of the latest in industry, commerce, science, and agriculture were the primary focus. The latter, especially, reflected the optimism and faith in human progress characteristic of the era. Competition to exhibit their works at either type of exposition was fierce among artists since inclusion added tremendously to their reputations and their ability to attract clients. Saint-Gaudens left for Paris with $100 in his pocket, a thorough knowledge of his craft, and the greater ambition of gaining admission to France's famous art school, the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. While waiting for acceptance, he worked in an Italian cameo-cutter's atelier (studio). When he was finally accepted to the school a year later, he continued to support himself by cameo-cutting.
In 1870 Saint-Gaudens left Paris to live and work in Rome, where he spent the next five years. His outlook and skills matured during these years, and his warm personality attracted both foreign and American friends. His early patrons introduced his name to social circles that mattered. In Rome he also met Augusta F. Homer of Massachusetts, a cousin of painter Winslow Homer.
At age 27 Saint-Gaudens returned to America and began his career with an 1876 commission to design a statue of Civil War admiral David G. Farragut. This commission was a turning point in Saint-Gaudens' life. It brought him both recognition and enough security to marry Augusta Homer. The statue was exhibited in Paris in 1880 and then cast in bronze and placed in Madison Square in New York. According to noted art critic and scholar Lorado Taft, "when in 1881 the Admiral Farragut was unveiled in Madison Square, the work of a new leader was discovered; the foreign and unfamiliar name was henceforth to head the list."¹
After the Farragut statue Saint-Gaudens no longer had to struggle to obtain commissions. These included many of his most famous works, such as the Randall, the Puritan, and the Standing Lincoln, as well as a series of relief portraits (a form of sculpture in which figures protrude from a flat background). The latter in particular revealed his mastery of delicate line and sensitive modeling. In three decades, Saint-Gaudens produced nearly 150 works. These included monumental public sculptures, such as the Shaw Memorial in Boston, the Sherman statue on Fifth Avenue in New York City, and the seated Lincoln in Chicago, as well as those mentioned above. He also completed sculptures-in-the round, such as the Adams Memorial, and numerous bas-reliefs (low reliefs) for private clients. President Theodore Roosevelt personally selected him to design new $10 and $20 gold pieces at the turn of the century.
Saint-Gaudens keenly felt his duties to those who would come after him. As he had benefited from his teachers, so he felt himself obliged to instruct. In numerous private ways he helped aspiring young sculptors. Through the classroom of the Arts Student League he reached many more, teaching steadily from 1888 to 1897. He undertook a new role as leader among his fellow artists by participating in a revolt against the traditions and rules of an older group of artists, and by helping to found the Society of American Artists. He also became a leader of the American group and helped choose American paintings for the 1878 Paris Exposition.
Saint-Gaudens gave generously of his time to other causes as well. He was an adviser to the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 and suggested his former pupil, Frederick MacMonnies, and his friend and contemporary, Daniel Chester French, for important commissions. He made many speeches on behalf of the American Academy in Rome and persuaded industrialist Henry Clay Frick to give $100,000 as an endowment. He later spent much time in Washington, D.C., working with his friends, architects Charles McKim and Daniel Burnham, on the MacMillan Commission for the preservation and development of the nation's capital. The commission's work resulted in the present design of the national Mall, its set-back museum buildings, and the Lincoln and Jefferson Memorials.
At the turn of the century, Saint-Gaudens' statue of William Tecumseh Sherman won the Grand-Prix in the Paris Salon of 1900. It was while in Paris that Saint-Gaudens learned of the malignancy which sent him back to Boston for surgery and led to his decision to return permanently to his studio and summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire. Despite his illness, Saint-Gaudens was productive in Cornish between 1900 and 1907 and continued to earn many honors. Harvard, Princeton, and Yale granted him honorary degrees, and both the Royal Academy in London and the French Legion of Honor elected him as a member.
Treatments could not arrest Saint-Gaudens' illness and his health continued to decline. He also weathered other setbacks, such as the fire that destroyed his large studio in 1904. He rebuilt the studio the next year and employed a number of assistants, whom he personally supervised. His productivity never faltered, even though he required a special sedan to move around and the constant attention of a trained nurse. By early 1907 Saint-Gaudens was bedridden but still cheerful. A few days before his death on August 3, 1907, he lay watching the sun set behind Mount Ascutney. "It's very beautiful," he said, "but I want to go farther away."
Questions for Reading 1
1. How did Saint-Gaudens receive his first training in sculpture? How do you think this training might have affected his later work?
2. Where did Saint-Gaudens receive his academic training?
3. What are some of Saint-Gaudens' better known public monuments? How many sculptures did Saint-Gaudens produce during his life?
4. Why do you think President Theodore Roosevelt asked Saint-Gaudens to design coins for the United States?
5. Was Saint-Gaudens influential in the art world? How can you tell? Why do you think the expositions would have been important?Reading 1 was compiled from the National Park Service's visitor's guide for Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.
¹ Lorado Taft, Modern Tendencies in Sculpture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1921), 97.