Augustus Saint-Gaudens: American Sculptor of the Gilded Age

By Johnson, Mark M. | Arts & Activities, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Augustus Saint-Gaudens: American Sculptor of the Gilded Age


Johnson, Mark M., Arts & Activities


Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) is generally regarded as the foremost American sculptor of the 19th century. Many of his works are landmarks in cities like New York or Boston, his works can be found in the most major museums and, while many might not immediately recognize his name, almost everyone is familiar with at least a few of his works.

Although he is usually acclaimed for his monumental works of sculpture, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, from early in his career, created a variety of work in other media and sizes including cameos, mural paintings, decorative panels and stained glass. But, it was his sculptures that firmly established his reputation and his popularity that, in turn, attracted a large number of clients.

In his maturity, Saint-Gaudens was a superb portrait artist, responsible for more than 100 sculptural portraits. He also was granted more than 20 public art commissions for major monuments on historical themes, and he created a number of medals and coins.

To meet the demand from museums and private clients seeking to acquire one of his works, Saint-Gaudens introduced affordable and accessible sculptures for a wider audience, including reductions of some of his most popular sculptures and portrait reliefs. In addition, President Theodore Roosevelt asked Saint-Gaudens to design the gold $10 and $20 pieces that are now considered to be among the most beautiful of coins, highly collectable and quite valuable.

Saint-Gaudens has been described as the "American Michelangelo." He was a splendid craftsman who became a brilliant player in the history of America's Gilded Age. Brought to the United States as an infant from Ireland, he was educated in the arts in the United States and abroad, but it was his training in Paris that clarified his conception of ideal beauty, which relied heavily upon French and Italian Renaissance art.

In Paris, Saint-Gaudens became acquainted with many other artists, among them the American architect Stanford White. It was a friendship and collaboration that bore fruit in more than 20 cooperative projects, and brought about a significant change in American monumental sculpture. Their careful attention to proper sculpture placement, landscaping and a monument's architectural features, such as benches, pedestals and inscriptions, produced a majestic and integrated whole.

Saint-Gaudens' professional career began at the end of the Civil War. Understandably, at this time, there was a great demand for monuments and memorials dedicated to soldiers and leaders on both sides of the conflict. Saint-Gaudens responded to this need with some of his most powerful and now most admired sculptures. His depictions of Abraham Lincoln, Admiral David Farragut, and William Tecumseh Sherman transformed the way traditional sculpture was presented, and how the public regarded it. His boldly naturalistic style set a new standard and was emulated by many of his American contemporaries.

The sculptor's Standing Lincoln is clearly his most stately and memorable monument. In 1860, when Saint-Gaudens was 12, he saw the president in New York and wrote of the experience. Five years later, he was one of the great mass of mourners who viewed the president lying in state in New York City. Both these personal events, combined with the character of this president and the historic events of his presidency, made a huge and lasting impression on Saint-Gaudens. It has been suggested that the standing, humble pose of Lincoln recalls his Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the battlefield as a national cemetery.

Rather than producing highly controlled, idealized neoclassical depictions in finely finished white marble, Saint-Gaudens created a new genre of public sculpture by working in bronze, by presenting subjects in contemporary dress and settings, and by focusing on their dignity and inherent strength of character. …

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