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
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
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.
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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