Finding Farragut: In Paris American Artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens Discovered the Inspiration He Needed to Create One of the 19th Century's Most Powerful Works of Art, the Statue of a Famous Civil War Hero
McCullough, David, American Heritage
AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS came to Paris for the first time in 1867, the year it seemed the whole world came to Paris for the Exposition Universelle, the grand, gilded apogee of Second Empire exuberance. He arrived on an evening in February, by train after dark and apparently alone. He was 19 years old, a redheaded New York City boy, a shoemaker's son, who had been working since the age of 13. He was not one of the first ambitious young Americans to come to Paris following the Civil War. He was younger than most, however, and in background and the future he had in store, he was like no one else. Until then he had never been away from home.
The young man had more in mind than the exposition. He planned to enroll at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts and remain in Paris as long as need be. Like young painter George Healy more than 30 years before; he had something he was determined to accomplish, and thus become accomplished himself. He considered himself bound to be a sculptor. That no American had ever been accepted as a student in sculpture at the Ecole did not deter him. But first he needed a job. In his pocket he had $100 saved for him by his father from his own small wages.
ON HIS 13th birthday, Saint-Gaudens's father had told him that he would need to work; the boy had therefore become the apprentice of cameo cutter Louis Avet. Cameos for men were much in style as scarf pins, with the heads of dogs, horses, and lions--lion heads were especially in demand--cut from amethyst and other stones. Gus worked 10-hour days and spent the first part of his apprenticeship polishing the backgrounds of stone cameos cut by his master, but was soon allowed to do more, including custom-colored cameo portraits on conch shells.
The art of cutting cameos was a species of sculpture rather than engraving. The artisan worked at a small bench with a multitude of steel engraving tools, or burins, with different-shaped points, these powered by a foot pedal that the cutter pumped as one did a sewing machine. The piece of stone or shell was fixed with cement to a stick, to hold it fast while the cutter worked. His work on cameos led Gus to seek a career as a sculptor. Not only did he like giving physical dimension to a subject; he had come to appreciate the importance of faces.
His apprenticeship years were also the years of the Civil War, and the day-to-day presence, the excitement and tragedy, of the war were seldom out of mind. Soldiers thronged the streets. Once, from an open window at Avet's workshop, the boy had watched a whole contingent of New England volunteers march down Broadway on their way to war, singing "John Brown's Body." Another day he saw "Grant himself" with his slouch hat parade by on horseback. Greatest of all was the thrill of seeing President Lincoln, who with his height seemed "entirely out of proportion" with the carriage in which he rode.
IN SAINT-GAUDENS moved in at first with his uncle Francois, his father's brother, on the avenue de la Grande-Armee, and "at once" found a part-time job working for an Italian cameo cutter in Montmartre.
As promised, the glittering Exposition Universelle of 1867 proved bigger and more spectacular than anything the world had yet seen. One giant, oval-shaped, glass-and-cast-iron exhibition "palace" and more than 100 smaller buildings filled most of the vast Champ de Mars on the Left Bank. More than 50,000 exhibitors took part. The theme was "objects for the improvement of the physical and moral condition of the masses." By the time the fair closed, on the last day of October, 11 million people--more than twice the number who had attended the Exposition Universelle of 1855--had poured across the Pont d'Iena to the banner-festooned main entrance on the Quai d'Orsay.
The number and importance of contemporary paintings and sculptures on exhibit surpassed anything seen before in one place. …