Michelangelo was reputed to have been able to see a sculpted figure within a block of marble before he even began. So it was with the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907).
“St. Gaudens had a gift of making one ‘see things.’… It was precisely because he was so intently an artist that his mental vision was clear, and that which he saw in turn made visible—there is no other word—to others,” wrote William Hicok Low, a fellow artist and friend, in his book “A Chronicle of Friendships.”
A first-generation Irish immigrant, Saint-Gaudens made works of art available for ordinary people: monuments to visit, cameos to wear, and coins to collect.
In 1861, when he was 13, Saint-Gaudens learned to use a sculptor’s tools when he was apprenticed to a cameo-cutter in New York City. People loved to wear cameo jewelry in the 19th century, and this kept the young man busy. Cameos demand a delicate touch; cutters carve an image into a layered stone so that the image rises from a darker background.
His father recognized his son’s emerging talent and paid his fare to Paris in 1867 so the young man could study sculpting at the École des Beaux-Arts. When the Franco-Prussian War broke out, Saint-Gaudens left Paris for Rome.
While in Rome, he studied Renaissance architecture and sculpture as well as Rome’s archeological ruins. There he also met and eventually married Augusta Homer, an artist from Boston (and first cousin of artist Winslow Homer). He crafted his last cameo as an engagement ring for her.
Monuments That Heal the Soul
Sculptors favor bronze because it is resilient and gives off a warm patina. At the height of his career, Saint-Gaudens’s bronze bas-reliefs and sculptures were recognized as the finest since the Renaissance. He used the method of “lost wax casting.” The artist first makes a mold from a sculpture and pours wax into it. He removes the mold and carves details into the wax, and then places the wax in a ceramic mold. This mold is fired to remove the wax, hence the “lost wax.” The sculptor fills the ceramic mold with molten bronze; when he removes the mold, he polishes the finished sculpture.
Saint-Gaudens mastered this process to commemorate heroes of the age, especially those of the Civil War. As visitors stand before one of his most renowned works on Boston Common, they may hear echoes of the Harlem Boys Choir singing from the movie “Glory.” The horse strains against the reins in contrast to the calm features of the rider. African American soldiers press forward as one to the beat of military drums.
The Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment Memorial, unveiled in 1897, has come to be thought of as the most moving work of art of that war. The Shaw family commissioned the work and by the time Saint-Gaudens finished it, 14 years had passed as had many of the figures in the memorial.
The figures of Col. Shaw and his horse developed from being embedded in the flat surface to almost three-dimensional. The black soldiers of the 54th stand out as individuals. “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,” according to Ruth Mehrtens Calvin, writing for the online magazine American Heritage.
Saint-Gaudens was 18 when President Lincoln was assassinated. When Lincoln’s funeral tour arrived in New York City, Saint-Gaudens stood in line outside City Hall to view the president’s body; then he returned to the end of the line for another glimpse. In 1884, he accepted a commission to create a bronze memorial for Lincoln to be installed in Lincoln Park, Chicago. He hired a model from a local farm near his home in New Hampshire who had a physical frame similar to Lincoln’s. The sculpture shows the president after rising from a Greek-style chair, head bent, while he waits to speak to a crowd; we see the president reflecting over what he would say to a nation at war.
Saint-Gaudens’s only known full-length female nude was commissioned by his lifelong friend, Sanford White, who owned Madison Square Garden at the time. White wanted a weathervane of the goddess Diana, deity of the hunt, on the roof of the Garden. Saint-Gaudens completed an 18-foot sculpture of gilded copper, but it proved too high for the structure, so Saint-Gaudens designed a 13-foot sculpture that fit the bill. The sculpture remained there until 1925 when the Garden was demolished. Historian John A. Kouwenhoven said that the Diana weathervane is “probably the best-loved statue ever erected in the city.”
Exquisite American Coins and Medals
Saint-Gaudens put his skills to use in another public endeavor: minted coins. An engraver designs a coin as carefully as planning a painting or sculpture. Saint-Gaudens’s bas-relief portrait of his friend and artist John Singer Sargent revealed his familiarity with classical Roman numismatics, or the study of Roman coins. The design of a coin for the mint must undergo a legal and copyright review and be checked for correct usage of symbols. Once approved, the design is sculpted in clay.
With his first official medal, for the centennial of George Washington’s inauguration in 1889, Saint-Gaudens created “the first medal of real artistic value made in this country,” according to editor and art advocate Richard Watson Gilder.
At the request of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1904, Saint-Gaudens created a new one-cent piece and $10 and $20 gold pieces. The $20 coin, called the “Double Eagle,” was produced between 1907 and 1933 and is considered by many as the most beautiful coin ever produced by the U.S. Mint. Saint-Gaudens was the first sculptor to design an American coin, and several of his assistants went on to make significant contributions in this field.
Famous yet Humble
Saint-Gaudens valued friendships with the literary and artistic celebrities of the Gilded Age: Robert Louis Stevenson (for whom he made a bronze relief mounted on wood), the painter John Singer Sargent, Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain), and architect Stanford White, among others. To his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, he welcomed illustrator Maxfield Parrish and a young writer named Winston Churchill.
As famous as he was in his own right, Saint-Gaudens enjoyed simple joys and tributes. He loved ice cream. Manhattan named a playground in his honor.
The National Park Service, which manages his home and studio in Cornish, notes his contribution to the arts: “His vision and technique brought life-like qualities and stirring emotions to bronze, plaster, stone, and wood. His numerous pieces changed the way the world regarded American art and artists.”