Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Today's Hours
Museum: 10:00 AM - 7:00 PM
Gardens: 7:00 AM - 5:30 PM
Saint Gaudens, Augustus
(1848-1907)
Collection: American Collection
Specialties: Numismatics, Sculpture
View Artwork
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the leading American sculptor of his time, some
term him the "American Michelangelo" while others compared him to the
French giant Auguste Rodin. His work encompassed a broad variety of
sculptural forms over his life, from his design of the double eagle gold
coin which some scholars have termed "the most beautiful coin ever minted"
(the government later melted most of them down; one of the rare double
eagles left in existence recently sold at auction for $6.6 million) to the
massive monumental sculptural plaques for a 60-foot high pink granite
pyramid in Wyoming. He sculpted portraits of major living figures
including William Dean Howells and Robert Louis Stevenson as well as
monuments to the lost, including Abraham Lincoln and perhaps his most
famous piece, the Shaw Memorial, a tribute to Col. Robert Gould Shaw and
the 54^th Massachusetts, the first black regiments to fight in the Civil
War.

Born in Dublin to a French cobbler and his Irish wife, Saint-Gaudens
arrived in America when only 6 months old and tended to think of himself
as a native New Yorker. He described his younger self as "red-headed,
whopper-jawed, and hopeful" when, as a young boy, he fought with
neighborhood gangs in the course of delivering his father's "French
Ladies' Boots and Shoes" to the prominent ladies of New York. At 18, he
stood in the line to view Lincoln's body, then returned to the back of the
line for a chance to view the fallen president's face again, an event
which would undoubtedly have an impact on his future sculptures of
Lincoln. Earlier, at age 13, he had been apprenticed to a cameo-maker and
also began attending night classes in art at Cooper Union, eventually
moving on to study at the National Academy of Design. The second
cameo-maker for whom he worked taught him to sculpt in clay, whetting the
boy's appetite for art and instilling him the desire to study in Paris.
His father provided the fare by refunding the money young Augustus had
been paying his parents for room and board. In Paris in 1867, he worked
for another cameo-maker while studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. When
the Franco-Prussian War broke out, he moved to Rome and began work on his
first major project, a sculpture of Hiawatha. Unfortunately, he showed a
tendency which would follow him all his life - underestimating the actual
cost of a piece compared to the sales price. Fortunately, two visiting
Americans, one the governor of New York, admired the piece enough to
underwrite it, as well as paying his way home after Saint-Gaudens suffered
repeated bouts of an illness they called Roman fever.

Back in the States, he managed to secure his first two sculptural
commissions, one in Chicago and one in New York. He carved his last cameo
to adorn the finger of the young woman he intended to marry, Augusta
Homer, the partially deaf first cousin of artist Winslow Homer. Before
their wedding, however, he returned to Rome for another two years, largely
to secure materials for his two commissions and raise enough money to
support a family. Instead he suffered through a series of mishaps and,
having all his work attached by creditors in Rome, returned to America.
Fortunately, a friend was able to rescue his pieces and save him from
arriving penniless.

Soon, through various friendships, most notably one with fellow sculptor
John La Farge, he received several significant commissions, creating
enough financial security to allow him to finally wed his patient fiancee.
He took his new bride back to Paris, setting up a studio there to work on
his American commissions. The Saint-Gaudens apartment soon became a sort
of salon for Americans abroad, its parlor filled with long-terms friends
including architects Stanford White and Charles McKim and author Samuel
Clemens.

After three years, the Saint-Gaudens family returned to America in 1880
where their son Homer was born. Through his friendship with La Farge,
Augustus was hired for a series of architectural decorations, including
some caryatids and family bas-reliefs for the Vanderbilt mansion on Fifth
Avenue. His reputation was made when the statue of Admiral Farragut on
which he had worked in Paris was at last unveiled in Madison Square Park.
One of his first commissions thereafter was for the Shaw Memorial, a task
he expected to take two years which instead consumed fourteen. He did
complete other commissions in the meantime, including a statue of Lincoln,
a bas-relief of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson, and a bust of Gen.
William Tecumseh Sherman with whom he became friendly. However, his next
major work was a commission by renowned scholar and writer Henry Adams, a
descendant of John and John Quincy Adams, to model a bronze statue in
memory of his wife, Marion Hooper Adams, who had committed suicide. The
resulting mysterious and melancholy figure has been called his
masterpiece. In any case, the public visited it in large numbers (despite
its cemetery location), further securing his reputation as the dean of
American sculptors.

Saint-Gaudens used his new-found fame to promote a fresh understanding of
sculpture in America, organizing one of the first American exhibitions of
the great French naturalist sculptor Antoine-Louis Barye in 1889. He was
also willing to take the time to teach younger sculptors, inviting even
ambitious young women into his studio, including a young woman named
Annetta who eventually married his brother Louis while continuing to
pursue a successful career sculpting in ceramics. In addition to helping
establish a number of art societies and serving on the Senate Park
Planning Commission for Washington, Augustus also helped found the
American Academy in Rome.

Though a bit of a hypochondriac who frequently went away on various
"health cures", Augusta Saint-Gaudens was a shrewd money-manager who
tenaciously guarded her husband's interests. She not only kept the family
solvent, but through clever investments, actually built their wealth,
enabling her husband's many pursuits. Despite the occasional turbulence of
their marriage, she and Augustus seemed devoted. Then in the 1880s,
Saint-Gaudens began working with a beautiful young model named Davida
Clark. She posed for a number of works, including two pieces that became
among his most famous: the Diana intended as a weathervane atop Madison
Square Garden, the original of which is currently on display at the
Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Amor Caritas, a bas-relief angel
originally intended for the Morgan Tomb, the first casting of which was
purchased by the French government and is currently in the Louvre. The
Norton owns smaller-sized editions of both these works. Saint-Gaudens grew
enamored of Clark and the two of them had a son together whom they named
Louis after his brother. Louis and Annetta later had a hand in raising the
boy and remained close to him throughout their lives. However, he was kept
secret from Augusta, taking his mother's last name. When at last Augusta
learned of the affair years later, she briefly left her husband. He wrote
her a moving letter expressing his adoration and continued commitment to
her, and she relented, remaining by his side until his death. His final
sculpture, a bas-relief he was unable to complete, was a portrait of his
wife accompanied by the family dog, whose shaggy visage seems to evoke a
deliberate likeness to the sculptor himself.

During a final stay in Paris in 1900, Saint-Gaudens began having severe
health problems. Told he need surgery for an intestinal tumor, he returned
to America and had it removed at Massachusetts General Hospital. However,
his health never recovered and he lived in almost constant pain, which he
bore with patience, fortitude, and even humor for the rest of his life. He
began his memoirs which he entitled Reminiscences of an Idiot, but
died before completing them or his final sculptures, passing away in 1907
at a premature 59 years of age.

Despite his frequent funerary commissions, turbulent health, and marital
misadventures, Saint-Gaudens insisted on remaining optimistic and positive
in his outlook, contributing both encouragement and effort to the
promotion of American art and artists. He once explained his personal
philosophy:

It seems as if we are all in one open boat on the ocean, abandoned and
drifting, no one knows where, and while doing all we can to get somewhere,
it is better to be cheerful than melancholy; the latter does not help the
situation, and the former cheers up one's comrades . . . Love and courage
are the great things . . . The thing to do is to try and do good, and any
serious and earnest effort seems to me to be, to our limited vision, a
drop in the ocean of evolution to something better.


Everl Adair, Director of Research and Rare Collections