During the three decades of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ remarkable career, he redirected and invigorated the course of American sculpture away from a worn-out Neoclassical aesthetic to a lively, naturalistic style, while also ardently promoting the nationalistic concept of an American school of sculpture flourishing on American shores. An artist of exceptional talent, Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland, son of a French father and an Irish mother. When he was an infant, his family immigrated to New York, where his father established a successful boot and shoe shop. In 1861, at age thirteen, Saint-Gaudens was apprenticed to Louis Avet, a French stone cameo cutter working in New York, and over the next three years gained a facile command of the medium. He next worked with another French cameo cutter, Jules Le Brethon, and supplemented this employment with formal studies at the Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design.
In 1867, Saint-Gaudens traveled to Paris, one of the first American sculptors to choose that new center of the art world over Florence or Rome. The following year he was admitted to the prestigious École des Beaux-Arts, the foremost proving ground for artists and architects during the late nineteenth century. In 1870, following the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War, Saint-Gaudens went to Rome, where expatriate American Neoclassical sculptors included William Wetmore Story, William Henry Rinehart, and Harriet Goodhue Hosmer. Saint-Gaudens set up a studio in the gardens of the Palazzo Barberini and began his first full-length sculpture, Hiawatha (2001.641), a Native American figure inspired by the writings of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. This early marble shows the extent to which Saint-Gaudens was temporarily influenced by the Neoclassical tradition he encountered in Rome. He derived greater long-term inspiration, however, from the example of fifteenth-century Italian masters, including Pisanello, Ghiberti, Verrocchio, and above all, Donatello.
Saint-Gaudens returned to the United States briefly in 1872, completing several portrait commissions for prominent New Yorkers. Following another trip to Rome in 1873–74, he again settled in New York, where he met the painter-decorator John La Farge and the architects Stanford White and Charles McKim. Over the years, his work with each of these men resulted in artistic collaborations that were among the most celebrated of the American Renaissance, from pedestals for his monuments to frames for his relief sculptures (1976.388; 17.104). La Farge hired Saint-Gaudens in 1876–77 to paint murals for H. H. Richardson’s Trinity Church in Boston and subsequently worked with him on several projects, including the interior program for the Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion (25.234) in New York.
In 1877, Saint-Gaudens returned to Paris, taking with him the important commission for the Admiral David Farragut Monument (1877–80; Madison Square Park, New York), an overlifesize bronze statue on a granite pedestal designed in collaboration with Stanford White. With this work, Saint-Gaudens redirected his aesthetic away from the waning Neoclassical style to the Beaux-Arts aesthetic, enlivening his sculpture with naturalism and surface bravado that he absorbed from his training in Paris. While there, Saint-Gaudens also completed a series of low-relief portraits of artists and friends (2002.445; 1994.50; 12.76.4) that demonstrate inspiration from the work of both Donatello and Saint-Gaudens’ French contemporary Henri Chapu. These innovative compositions, executed for pleasure, united likeness, personalized inscriptions, and other identifying attributes to project the individualistic character of his sitters.
The success of the Farragut Monument led to commissions for some twenty public monuments, among them two major projects that were unveiled in 1887 in settings designed by Stanford White: the heroic standing Abraham Lincoln (1884–87; 2012.14a,b) for Chicago and the overlifesize Puritan (1883–86) for Springfield, Massachusetts. The memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the fifty-fourth Massachusetts volunteer infantry depicts a procession of African-American foot soldiers of the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry with their commander Colonel Shaw on his horse and an angel of glory hovering above, a stunning synthesis of real and ideal. For Stanford White’s Madison Square Garden, in 1891, Saint-Gaudens created an ideal female nude, Diana, in gilt sheet copper to top the building’s tower. The 18-foot statue was judged too large for the setting, and in 1893 it was replaced by a reworked 13-foot figure (28.101). This second version of Diana inspired replicas in several variants (1985.353), which, along with reductions of The Puritan (39.65.53), Robert Louis Stevenson (12.76.1), and Amor Caritas (19.124), provided a steady source of income for the sculptor from the mid-1890s onward. Saint-Gaudens began his final major public memorial, the Sherman Monument (1892–1903; Grand Army Plaza, New York) in New York, continued it in Paris, where he lived from 1897 to 1900, and further revised it at his studio in Cornish, New Hampshire, upon his return. In this gilded bronze equestrian monument, General William Tecumseh Sherman is led on his horse by a winged classicized female Victory (17.90.1; 07.90).
In 1900, Saint-Gaudens settled year round in Cornish, the site of a thriving artists’ colony. By then his international reputation was well established and his position as the foremost American sculptor of his era undisputed. In 1905, he earned a commission from President Theodore Roosevelt to redesign the ten- and twenty-dollar gold pieces; the latter is arguably the most inspirational example in the history of American numismatics. Saint-Gaudens’ contribution to American Renaissance art and culture must be measured not only as a master sculptor of works large and small, public and private, but also as a gifted teacher, arbiter of taste, and professional role model for a succeeding generation of French-trained American sculptors.
The Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park, the sculptor’s home and studios in Cornish, are open to the public seasonally.