Augustus Saint-Gaudens, sometimes known as the American Michelangelo, was among the foremost sculptors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. He arrived in Cornish in 1885. He rented an old inn for the summer and over time he adapted the house to his needs and converted the barn into a studio. He ultimately purchased the property and continued to summer there until 1892, when it became his year-round home. Over the years he transformed the property into a center for artists and intellectuals of the period, who formed what has become known as the “Cornish Colony.” The Colony included: painters Maxfield Parrish, Thomas Dewing, George de Forest Bush, Lucia Fuller, and Kenyon Cox; dramatist Percy Mac-Kaye; American novelist Winston Churchill; architect Charles Platt; and sculptors Paul Manship, Herbert Adams, and Louis Saint– Gaudens, brother of Augustus. They created a dynamic social environment, centered around Saint-Gaudens.
August Saint-Gaudens was born March 1, 1848 in Dublin, Ireland, to a French shoemaker and his Irish wife. Six months following his birth, the family immigrated to New York City, where Augustus grew up. After completing school at age 13, he pursued his interest in art as a career and was apprenticed to a cameo cutter. While working days as at his cameo lathe, Augustus attended art classes at New York’s Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. At 19, he completed his apprenticeship and traveled to Paris, in pursuit of becoming a sculptor, where he studied at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. In 1870 he left Paris for Rome where he studied classical art and architecture for the next five years. While in Rome, he met an American art student, Augusta Homer, whom he later married.
Following the Civil War, many artists received commissions to memorialize important events of the war and its heroes. Among Saint-Gaudens’ diverse works, his greatest legacy may be his public monuments, five of which are dedicated to heroes of the Civil War.
In 1876 Saint-Gaudens received his first major commission: a monument to Civil War Adm. David Glasgow Farragut. Farragut had gained fame for his command of the Federal Fleet in the battle of Mobile Bay, August 5, 1864, in which he defeated the Confederate fleet Commanded by Adm. Franklin Buchanan. Unveiled in New York City in 1881, the Farragut monument was a tremendous success; its combination of realism and allegory marked a departure from previous American sculpture. Saint-Gaudens’ fame grew and other commissions were quickly forthcoming. Saint-Gaudens’ increased prominence allowed him to pursue his strong interest in teaching something he did steadily from 1888 to 1897. He tutored young artists privately, taught at the Art Students League in New York City and took on a large number of assistants.
Saint-Gaudens’ other Civil War Commissions include his equestrian monument to General William Tecumseh Sherman in New York’s Central Park. Sherman commanded Federal forces in a famed march from Atlanta to Savannah in 1864 in which he practiced a scorched earth policy. This monument includes realism and idealism with winged Victory leading a resolute Sherman on his march to the sea.
Saint-Gaudens’ “Standing Lincoln” in Lincoln Park in Chicago is one of the finest representations of the Civil War President. Following Saint-Gaudens’ death, one of his students, Daniel Chester French, who studied under him at the Arts Students League, would ultimately be commissioned to create the sculpture of Lincoln for the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps Saint-Gaudens’ greatest achievement of his Civil War commissions was the Shaw Memorial described as a “symphony in bronze,” which took 14 years to complete. This monument, located on Boston Common, depicts Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a white commander, leading the 54th Massachusetts regiment, made up of black soldiers, in their attack on Fort Wagner, Charleston Harbor, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. Colonel Shaw and many of his regiment were killed in the assault. The affect portrayed in the faces of the soldiers depicts their dedication and determination to make the ultimate sacrifice to eradicate the oppression suffered by generations of slaves who had toiled in the South.
Saint-Gaudens is also well known for his medals and coins. He did commemorative medals for the Centennial of George Washington’s inauguration in 1889, the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893 and the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural medal in 1905. Saint-Gaudens designed three coins for the U.S. Mint: the one cent Indian Head penny and the 10 and 20 dollar gold pieces.
Among Saint-Gaudens’ achievements are his portrait reliefs. Considered the most complicated and difficult type of sculpture bas-relief (low relief) has been compared to “drawing in clay.”
A visit to Saint-Gaudens’ Aspet offers many rewards. There are the magnificent perennial and sculpture gardens to enjoy while listening to beautiful music on Sundays, at 2:00 PM, throughout July and August. In addition one may tour his home and studio as well as the New Gallery & Atrium. The entrance fee is $5 per person, children age 15 and under are free. There is no charge for the concerts. For further information: Saint-Gaudens Memorial www.sgnhs.org.
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