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Augustus Saint-Gaudens


Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was famous for making two kinds of art that relatively few artists pursue: (1) monumental public sculpture, and (2) small-scale portrait reliefs (raised images carved from a flat background of stone or marble, or shaped in plaster and often cast in bronze). He was introduced to the art of relief work when, at thirteen, he was apprenticed to a maker of cameos—shells, gems, or stones carved with portraits or scenes, often mounted as jewelry.

Working at the cameo lathe for the next six years, the young Saint-Gaudens learned how to create the impression of three-dimensionality in an essentially two-dimensional medium. This skill shaped his career, in which he produced over 200 works in marble and bronze, became internationally famous, and at various times maintained studios in New York, Paris, and at his country retreat, Aspet, in Cornish, New Hampshire. Among his best known pieces are six Civil War monuments, including the Shaw Memorial, and the statue of Diana of the Tower atop New York City's Madison Square Garden building.

About the Artist
Born in 1848, Saint-Gaudens was the son of a French shoemaker and an Irish mother. His parents soon emigrated from Ireland to New York City, where he grew up. In 1867 Saint-Gaudens took $100 saved from his apprentice's wages and sailed for Paris. Over the next eight years he studied art there and in Rome, where he developed an admiration for Renaissance medals and bronze casting, as well as for Italian classical art and architecture. His career as a professional sculptor began when wealthy Americans living in Rome engaged him to make their portraits and busts.

Returning to New York in 1875, Saint-Gaudens collaborated with well-known architects and painters on complex decorative schemes for buildings. Then, in 1880, he received his first public commission: a monument to the Civil War naval hero, Admiral David Farragut.

From that point on, Saint-Gaudens' career skyrocketed. At any given time, he had more work than he could handle: private portraiture, architectural work, and nearly annual deadlines for public sculpture commissions. He also taught at the Art Students League in New York.

It is no wonder that when hired to create a memorial to the Fifty-fourth Massachusetts Regiment the most famous African-American military unit in the Civil War it took the artist over thirteen years to complete it (1883/1884-1897) as it grew in conception and complexity while other projects competed for his attention. Today Saint-Gaudens' New Hampshire house and studio comprise an historic landmark of the National Park Service. A plaster cast of the final version of the Shaw Memorial, in the Park Service collection at Aspet, is on long-term display at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. in conjunction with a joint Park Service and National Gallery restoration of the piece undertaken from 1997 to 1998.

The Fifty-Fourth Regiment
Immortalized today by the film, Glory, the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth Regiment was renowned in its own era for bravery and sacrifice during the Civil War. Recruited by the governor of Massachusetts within weeks of President Lincoln's issue of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the black men of the Fifty-fourth and their white colonel (the young Bostonian Robert Gould Shaw) first met doubts and resentment about their fitness for military combat. In addition, the Confederate Congress issued a chilling proclamation: that African Americans captured in uniform would be sold into slavery, and white officers of such troops, executed.

In this climate of skepticism about their right and their ability to fight, the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth faced grave challenges. Two months after it departed Boston for combat in the South, the Fifty-fourth volunteered to lead the attack on the heavily protected Fort Wagner, which guarded the port of Charleston, South Carolina. As 600 men advanced on the fort's sloped, sandy walls, they came under heavy fire. When the conflict of July 18, 1863 ended, 281 had been killed, wounded, missing, or taken prisoner. The body of Colonel Shaw, who had been killed during the troops' advance, was stripped and thrown into a ditch grave with his soldiers. Northern newspapers reported the trench burial. Shaw's parents avowed abolitionists in Boston wrote that they could hope for "no holier place" for their son's body than "surrounded by his brave and devoted soldiers."

Recruitment in the North was stirred by accounts of the regiment's sacrifice, and by war's end 180,000 African Americans had fought for the Union. Lincoln believed that their contribution had tipped the scales toward the North's eventual victory.

After the war, a group of Bostonians raised funds to commission a monument in honor of the regiment and its contribution to the war for emancipation. Ever since its dedication on Memorial Day, May 31, 1897, the Shaw Memorial has stood on Boston Common as a timeless reminder of how the valor and sacrifice of individuals helped bring our country out of slavery.

The Memorial
Augustus Saint-Gaudens' tribute to the Massachusetts Fifty-fourth is a colossal relief sculpture measuring 11 x 14 feet (33 x 42 m). Facing the monument, the viewer confronts a frieze (sculpted horizontal band) of moving bodies, their legs in various stages of a march, their rifles, canteens, and packs peppering the middle ground and upper level of the piece. All figures surge forward with the rhythm of the centrally placed horse upon which the regiment's leader rides, yet each profile is also mesmerizingly individual. This is part of Saint-Gaudens' achievement: the investment of diversity in expression and pose with a sense of resolute solidarity. Hovering above the soldiers is an angel holding an olive branch (symbol of peace) and poppies (representing death, sleep, and remembrance).

Begun as a low relief (in art, called a bas-relief), Saint-Gaudens' monument increased in depth from its background so much that it approached a complex point between two and three dimensions. Intent on recreating the individual appearance and overall mood of the regiment, Saint-Gaudens made forty studies of the heads of black men willing to pose for him. To achieve a highly realistic effect, he also tethered a horse in his studio as a model. The artist's meticulous process and the challenge of combining many figures took a great deal of time. The slow development of the Shaw Memorial infuriated its original financial backers, some of whom died before its completion. But Saint-Gaudens was resolute in his goal to convey authenticity and grandeur in the memorial. As he later wrote, "developing in this way infinitely beyond what could be paid for, [the monument] became a labor of love."

Exhibition and Conservation
The Shaw Memorial exists in three versions. Saint-Gaudens had his full-scale plaster work (comprising twenty-one pieces) cast in bronze. The bronze version stands today on the Boston Common. The artist exhibited a plaster cast (which differed in some details) of a later version in France and the U.S. from 1898-1919, and it eventually found its way to his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, which had become a museum dedicated to his work, and after 1965 was a part of The National Park Service.

During the conservation process, a new bronze casting was made. Today this bronze is on display at Saint-Gaudens' Cornish property, and the restored plaster is at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. --
Text Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art


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Augustus Saint-Gaudens
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