Editor's note: The following essay is rekeyed and reprinted on March 21, 2003 with permission of the Trust for Museum Exhibitions. The essay is included in the 128-page illustrated catalogue titled "Augustus Saint Gaudens: American Sculptor of the Gilded Age." The 2003 catalogue, ISBN: 1-882507-12-6, accompanies an exhibition of the same name, featuring approximately 75 of the sculptor's works, which begins its national tour at the North Carolina Museum of Art February 23 - May 11, 2003. The exhibition is organized and circulated by the Trust for Museum Exhibitions in cooperation with the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. If you would like to obtain a copy of the catalogue please contact the North Carolina Museum of Art at 919-839-6262.


American Sculptor of the Gilded Age

by Henry J. Duffy


AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS (1848-1907) stands apart in nineteenth-century American sculpture as an artist who created his own style, one that revitalized American sculpture with a new spirit inspired by classical tradition.[1] Often compared to the great artists of the Italian Renaissance -- indeed, he has been called the "American Michelangelo" [2] -- Saint-Gaudens invigorated American sculpture and raised it to new heights in the late nineteenth century. In his Civil War monuments, particularly the Shaw Memorial (see pages 58-63 and 120) and the Sherman Monument (see pages 6-7 and 70-73), he created an art of direct, simple expression, free of the storytelling so common in his generation of artists. His portrait reliefs, done in low, almost painterly style, are the epitome of the type.[3] In contrast to practitioners of narrative or genre art, which developed in painting in the second half of the nineteenth century, Saint-Gaudens allowed the subject and the material to speak directly,[4] and in this he was an early proponent of modernism. Saint-Gaudens is important as both an artist and a strong force in the development of America's cultural life. As a teacher and activist, he played a prominent role in shaping the country's understanding of the art of sculpture.

Saint-Gaudens was recognized early by his contemporaries as an artist of merit,[5] and perceptive critics noted the distinctiveness of his art from earlier American work. The art of sculpture was just coming into its own in late-nineteenth-century America, introduced to the public by the classically inspired marble works of Hiram Powers (1805-73) and Erastus Palmer (18I7-1904) and the emerging American themes of J. Q. A. Ward (1830-1910). These early works were created largely for public spaces or a select number of wealthy homes. For most Americans, sculpture was not perceived as an integral part of everyday life, as paintings often were. The evocative storytelling of genre and landscape painting, so popular during the Gilded Age, appealed easily to an audience largely untrained in the appreciation of
art. However, sculpture, partly because of its size, was more difficult to comprehend. Working to create programs and institutions that became the basis for the modern study and practice of sculpture, Saint-Gaudens and contemporaries such as Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) and Frederick MacMonnies (1863-1937) changed these perceptions.

The acceptance of and need for sculpture in the United States arose in conjunction with the country's growth after the Civil War (186I-65). Numerous monuments were commissioned to commemorate the national crisis; in addition, sculpture, in tandem with architecture, was used to evoke the country's new financial and economic strength. During the Gilded Age -- so named by Mark Twain, who with his usual caustic humor captured in this description both the glory and ostentation of the great economic heyday that followed the war -- the need for public and private sculpture increased. Art, both public and private, responded in style and material to the change in American life.

Saint-Gaudens developed his art through hard work and dedication. His background -- he was the son of hard-working immigrants who came to America in search of opportunity -- was similar to that of many others in nineteenth-century New York City. Born in Dublin, Ireland, to a French father and an Irish mother, he emigrated with his family to New York when he was six months old. His father, Bernard, was a shoemaker whose approach to shoe making fit well with the nineteenth-century drive for innovation: he experimented with different designs and advertised his wares in a way that went right to the heart of the American need.[6] Contemporary photographs of the Saint-Gaudens house in New York reveal the father's strong marketing skill: advertising that targeted the upper echelon of New York society. The artist's mother, Mary McGuiness, was the heart of the family, holding together the business and allowing her husband and sons the freedom to dream big dreams in the new land of opportunity. Saint-Gaudens, in his Reminiscences (1913), credits his parents, especially his mother, for giving him the confidence to pursue a career that many first-generation Americans would not have considered.[7]

Saint-Gaudens began his career in art in 1861, at the age of thirteen, when he was apprenticed to the cameo cutter Louis Avet. After three years he left to work for Jules LeBrethon, another cameo cutter. Saint-Gaudens clearly showed an early interest in art rather than trade, attending night classes at the Cooper Union in 1864 and day classes with Daniel Huntington (18I6-1906), Emmanuel Leutze (1816-68), Launt Thompson (1833-94) and J. Q. A. Ward at the National Academy of Design in 1866. The following year his parents sacrificed their savings to send Augustus to Paris for further study in the arts. There his father's French heritage helped him gain admission to the École des Beaux-Arts. Perhaps as a way of thanking them, Saint-Gaudens created a beautiful pencil drawing of his mother and his first important bronze bust -- of his father -- before leaving for France in 1867.




Although Saint-Gaudens began his study of art in the United States, even American critics realized that his mature style was strongly influenced by his training in France from 1867 to 1875. In the 1860s and early 1870s American critics wrote often of the conflict between American and European art, and Saint-Gaudens himself admitted that he initially believed that only in France could an artist achieve any kind of training. This view was not altogether unjustified. The arts community was just beginning to coalesce in pre-Civil War America. New York City was not quite the center of culture it became after the war, but there nonetheless the young Saint-Gaudens had access to galleries and art schools.[8] One was right next door: the National Academy of Design on Twenty-third Street abutted the Saint-Gaudens house. At this time in America there was a general shift in taste from primarily German and English art to French and later other European art. However, when Saint-Gaudens launched his career on his return from Europe in 1875, the art scene in America had become quite exciting. Initially Saint-Gaudens followed public taste but later changed as he formulated his own vision; public taste, meanwhile, became more sophisticated.

When Saint-Gaudens arrived in Paris in 1867, the city was vibrant with the emerging culture of the Second Empire, and a large number of public buildings, all requiring decoration, were being constructed. The young man immersed himself in the art world of Paris and later Rome with a concentrated energy. What courses he took is unknown, as is whether the new philosophy of Positivism taught at the École by Hippolyte Taine (1828-93), author of Philosophie de l'art (1865), held any interest for him. What Saint-Gaudens did gain from his experience, however, was a clear understanding of traditional art and the immediacy of the realism practiced by French artists from Jean-Léon Gérôme (1824-1904) to the sculptors who would become his friends: Paul Bion (1845-97), Antonin Mercié (1845-1916), and Paul Dubois (1829-1905). These artists were at the forefront of revitalizing French art, adopting a fresher, bolder approach to expression and pose in sculpture and allowing the material -- bronze or marble or plaster -- to speak for itself.

When Saint-Gaudens began his career, he was one of only three American sculptors to be fully grounded in this bolder approach to art. It carried over into his oeuvre, and he himself passed it on in his own teaching at the Art Students League and in his various studios.[9] He was innovative but not revolutionary. In Paris he was interested primarily in the art of the establishment, and he approached his later acquaintance with Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) warily -- with respect but not complete acceptance of the direction in which the Frenchman was moving the art of sculpture.[10] Rodin's early pieces were much admired, in part for the works' closeness to the viewer, and Saint-Gaudens sometimes adopted this technique, placing a number of his pieces low to the ground. However, he accepted impressionism less easily. He disliked what he saw as a lack of internal structure in the paintings of Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), and Rodin's Balzac (1893) was beyond his understanding.

Nonetheless, what Saint-Gaudens found in Paris in 1867 was a greater appreciation and acceptance of sculpture as an art form than in his own country.[11] In America sculpture was generally treated either as household decoration or as a work of high moral tenor meant to instruct the audience. In the 1860s American artists still tended to look toward Europe for instruction and inspiration. Saint-Gaudens initially followed this process, but gradually -- around 1900 -- he realized that American culture had changed. Although he did not acknowledge his own role in effecting that change, others did. Lorado Taft (1860-1936), a sculptor and critic, outlined this shift in taste in his book The History of American Art (1917). In particular his chapter on the origins of sculpture gives a picture of the medium's place in American culture as seen by its practitioners and by Saint-Gaudens's contemporaries.[12]




In America the greater acceptance and understanding of art generally were tied to two factors: democracy and commercial independence. During the nineteenth century the public identity of America as a unified nation -- rather than a collection of immigrants -- was shaped to a large measure through the use of art. In painting the dominant theme was genre; the overwhelming majority of paintings in American galleries and collections fit this category. Even if the figures in the paintings were clothed in historical or European dress, the message was clearly one of moral decency as the basis for a person's or a nation's actions. This was probably inspired by America's rapid economic and commercial growth, strong before the Civil War but unstoppable in the decades afterwards. An increase in commercialism and the rise of a middle class -- and middle-class values -- was occurring in many countries throughout the world, but in America the trend was tempered by a unique kind of ethical responsibility. In America enjoyment of life had to be explained and justified in a way that bemused Europeans.

There was a disconnect, however, between critics and collectors and, to a degree, artists as well. Critics worried more about such issues as provincialism and justification for spending money on public monuments and other works of art. Because sculpture is larger and thus has a greater public impact, Saint-Gaudens and other sculptors became involved in the debate.

Saint-Gaudens became a vital player in this major shift in American artistic taste as European influence gradually began to be replaced by a more "homegrown" imagery and sentiment. In his role as a teacher, as a creator of important public monuments, and as an organizer of many of the main art expositions, Saint-Gaudens exercised a clear influence. It is interesting that the shift in taste came from artists and collectors, not so much from critics. Writers remained fixed on the concern for competition and were most fearful of provincialism. Artists such as Saint-Gaudens and the patrons who supported advancing artists and styles were ahead of the critics in their cosmopolitan world view.[13]

The state of American art at the time Saint-Gaudens first traveled to Europe is summarized in the article "The Extent of Art Knowledge: What Constitutes an Artist," which appeared in the May 24, 1874, issue of the New York Times.

America is almost without art, and nearly everything is to be created, and a great responsibility is put upon the
artists now coming forward. It is their duty, as it is that of the true critic who has informed himself by study, to
see to it that the monuments which are to be raised are models of good taste, so that they may serve as examples for all that shall succeed, and helps for the instruction of those who have not opportunity to learn in the great school always open in the Old World. We may doubt, and we may scold as much as we please, but in the future we are to have a great art blossoming and fruit ripening, if any dependence is to be put upon the promising buds with which our tree is now covered.... The whole nation will contribute to its nourishment. But to state the truth without figure, our painters and sculptors must study and work hard.... The method of art is toilsome and slow, and the lack of repose and patience in the American character ill fits it to submit to the hard discipline of the many years of study
needed to lay a solid foundation of knowledge.

In 1867, when Saint-Gaudens left for France, the art world of New York City and America was still dominated by portrait painting, nationalistic scenes of the Hudson River School, and the beginnings of European-inspired genre.[14] In 1875, when he returned to New York City, artists and critics were engaged in a spirited debate about the relative merits of European and American training. The young sculptor came back with a thorough training from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris and from his own work in Rome, where he had traveled in 1870, at the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War.

The moment of return had a strong impact on Saint-Gaudens's later career. He found studio space in the German Savings Bank Building with a friend he bad met in Europe, the painter-designer and diplomat David Maitland Armstrong (1836-1918).[15] Armstrong had brought Saint-Gaudens some notoriety in Europe by including him as a member of the jury to select American art for the Paris Exposition of 1878. Their radical approach to hanging art works in the exhibition made them both friends and enemies, as the New York Times explained:

These young persons have struck terror to the heart of the American colony by judging pictures on the ground of artistic merit displayed in them.... Carried away by their mistaken enthusiasm for pure art, they have rejected pictures of great size, which show, almost as faithfully as a colored photograph, miles and miles of our unequaled Western landscape.... They have made the pitiable mistake of supposing the size of, and length of time occupied in the painting of, a picture has little to do with its artistic merit. On the other hand it may be urged that an expurgated show of American art is a novel and refreshing thing, which cannot fail to impress well those Europeans whose good opinion is of value.[16]

The story reveals the new modernism of the artists around Saint-Gaudens.[17] Although tongue in cheek, the article points out a difference between the more democratic American point of view and the old traditions of Europe. Armstrong recalled that young artists whose work was deemed better than their well-known colleagues were given pride of place, an approach popular with the beneficiaries but surprising to those who expected special treatment because of their social or political position.

Saint-Gaudens's subsequent meeting and friendships with the architects Stanford White (1853-1906) and Henry Hobson Richardson (1838-86) and the painter John La Farge (1835-1910) not only provided important artistic support but also set the direction of his future creation. All of these artists were part of a new breed of American artist: people who were familiar with the tradition of classical art but who were setting their sights on a style unique to America. All sought to clarify and simplify the art of the past, fusing European tradition with the simple moral tone preferred by Americans. What developed then was a cosmopolitan style. The friendship and close working relationship that developed between Saint-Gaudens and Stanford White, in particular, formed one of the most important artist teams in Gilded Age America, responsible for the monument to Admiral David Farragut (see above and pages 56-57) the Diana (see pages 80-83), and The Puritan (see pages 74-75 and 128), among others.

Two of the earliest examples of Saint-Gaudens's collaboration with other artists to express this new ideal were the frescos in Trinity Church (1877), Boston, and the reredos for St. Thomas Church (1877) in New York City. In both, John La Farge brought Saint-Gaudens into the aesthetic sentiments of late-nineteenth-century modernism, introducing him to a style based on a wide-ranging knowledge of European, Asian, and American art. Not only were these commissions "modern" in the artistic sense; they also expressed the prevailing nineteenth-century desire to make religious art acceptable to an American sensibility that was largely puritanical, Protestant, and anti-Catholic. In these and other works on his return, Saint-Gaudens was brought into the debate of European versus American art and thus found himself in the vanguard of the new approach to art forged by La Farge, White, and others.




The importance of the issue of the European training of American artists is difficult to understand today, but in nineteenth-century America the absorption of various immigrant cultures was still sufficiently new as to be troubling to some critics. Because so many Americans were first or second generation, their Old World values and beliefs were still strong. Thus, the issue of artists such as Saint-Gaudens being trained in Europe seemed to some critics to be a nationalistic question: Was the artist more loyal to the United States or his European country of origin? Further, would the ideas learned overseas be destructive to the cohesiveness of the young republic, still reeling from the effects of the Civil War? As late as November 4, 1883, a critic in the New York Times wondered whether it was better to have

the incomplete groping after American subjects, using a technique conspicuous for absence of smartness in drawing and richness in coloring shown by the Americans, or the superficial imitation of foreign schools shown by the European Yankees? Certainly the American unmixed rests professionally on a sounder basis than the American affected by Europe. He cannot exist at all without a certain amount of support from the public, he must have some home patronage from actual buyers. The foreign American, on the other hand, is much more likely to be wholly or partially supported by remittances from the United States. When he sells here it is generally to a chance patron. The native artist may be less fastidious, less wide in culture; but after all he does honester [sic] work and stands more chance in the long run to become a national artist. The other paints in a medium of ideas that do not, and perhaps never will, penetrate the ranks of his countrymen, and runs the risk of getting every year further and further from sympathy with them. To become a real success abroad it would be necessary to overcome the prejudice against foreign work and the weight of national vanity, not to speak of the superhuman attempt to absorb thoroughly the foreign ideas that begin with childhood and are as natural to the real foreigner as breathing.

Whether he was aware of it or not, Saint-Gaudens played a part in this debate. By joining with the young, innovative artists such as Armstrong, La Farge, and others, he was more modern than he may have known. The relative safety of the Hudson River School painters or the clearly defined works of such sculptors as William Reinhart (1825-74) or Hiram Powers was being challenged by this young generation, which sought to draw out the inner workings of the individual as opposed to nationalistic or moralistic imagery of an artistic ideal.[18] In this Saint-Gaudens sided with the most important art patrons -- people like Edwin Morgan, governor of New York, and the Vanderbilts (see pages 30-31) who did not follow the advice of critics. These patrons bought European art and supported sculptors such as Saint-Gaudens and painters such as George Inness (1854-1926), artists who were simplifying the surface of their figures and concentrating on expression. Saint-Gaudens's gift was his subtle balance between surface realism and psychic energy unmatched by any of his contemporaries.

The artist-critic Lorado Taft, who knew Saint-Gaudens, saw him as the beacon for the development of a true American style in sculpture. Taft understood America's initial unease with sculpture. Pioneer and colonial culture did not take quickly to its larger scale. America's Puritan origins, while instrumental to the development of national character, seemed to Taft an obstacle to the rise of all creative arts. He probably was accurate in his assessment that the earliest forays -- commissioning copies of ancient busts -- was an attempt to copy the appearance of culture, often without a complete understanding of the reason for doing so. Such works were usually placed in the libraries of private homes, indicating a link between the young American republic and the ancient cultures that gave it ideological birth. For Taft the big change came with Saint-Gaudens and his introduction of French ideals into American art:

With the advent of Saint Gaudens[19] there came a notable change in the spirit of American Sculpture, while the rapid transformation of its technic [sic] was no less marked and significant. Though we owe this change largely to Paris, the result has not been French sculpture. Paris has vitalized the dormant tastes and energies of America -- that is all. A pronounced and helpful feature of the new order is the fact that as a rule the Parisian-trained sculptors do not remain abroad; they return to live with their own people and, like their French masters, they delight in teaching. The influence of such a man as Saint Gaudens ... becomes incalculable when multiplied through the pupils whom he has brought up to share his labors and his triumphs.[20]

Whether in French art or in his own, Saint-Gaudens was drawn to simplicity of subject, a "realism" of forms, and an underlying effect of true emotional impact. His works engaged the audience in a more immediate way than any other American sculpture at the time.[21] The artists who gathered around Saint-Gaudens -- John La Farge, Francis Davis Millet (1846-1912) (below), Dennis Miller Bunker (1861-90), George DeForest Brush (1855-1941), Thomas Dewing (1851-1938), Willard Metcalf (1858-1925), and John Twachtman (1853-1902) -- were a new breed of realists, artists who focused on the inherent spirit of the landscape or the people around them. Their paintings were also direct, clear accounts -- almost recordings -- of their surroundings. Yet each had an underlying spirit that made their work more than a simple snapshot.[22]

While in Europe, Saint-Gaudens also met European-Americans such as John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) (see page 105) and James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) (see pages 4 and 43)· For Saint-Gaudens, a man set on finding the core of his subject, his friendship with Whistler, like his strong friendship with Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-94) (see pages 106-7), might seem unexpected. But Saint-Gaudens was both a dreamer and a realist. He appreciated the spiritual side of life, if not the attendant philosophies or talk.

During his studies Saint-Gaudens was fortunate to meet in Europe artists who were also pushing out away from the old established art academies. His break from the American Academy and his support in forming the Society of American Artists in 1877 were indicative of his interest in dispensing with the political structure of the old art society. In Rome, where he went to escape the Franco-Prussian War, it was the direct appeal of Renaissance art that caught his attention. While similar to what he was seeing in French art, the clarity of the Renaissance art and the sense of modernism that it brought to the academicism of classical art were exciting to him.




The place of sculpture in American art was not really appreciated by the critics until later in the nineteenth century. While Saint-Gaudens reveled in the great sculptural works of Europe -- in addition to Paris and Rome, he visited Pompeii and Tuscany -- American sculpture was generally confined to decoration. An 1889 exhibition of bronze animal figures by Antoine-Louis Barye (1795-1875) in New York City, an exhibit for which Saint-Gaudens was one of the organizers, introduced a dramatic style and sparked public debate about why sculpture had not taken hold of the public imagination in America as it had in Europe.

The article "The Bronzes of Barye: Their Infinite Variety and Importance to American Sculpture," which appeared in the New York Times on November 16, 1889, declared:

It is plain that sculpture is on an entirely false basis with us. It is an exotic. It does not enter into our daily lives, nor belong to the list of luxurious necessities like water colors and oils. Yet so far as monumental art is concerned, that we are only too ready to demand from our sculptors. But our own taste and their talents have not been shaped so as to produce good sculpture save here and there. We do not ask our sculptors for bas-reliefs, chimney pieces, portraits, ornaments for our houses, statuettes of all kinds. Yet the few workmen who produce figures and groups belonging to this branch of art are sufficiently successful to warrant us in believing that there is a great public demand for such sculpture which needs only to be hit. But they are generally artists of feeble imagination and inadequate technique, while the highly-trained sculptors reserve their strength for efforts on a higher plane of art. What we now need is a demand for sculpture of the finest sort for the home and a supply of sculptors who will follow Barye in the daring and originality of his works.

Lorado Taft would have agreed with the tone of this article, noting the pivotal role that Saint-Gaudens played in forming a true national style, but saw that as only the first step. The audience simply did not yet exist; "... we know what we like, but we don't know what that means."[23] Taft saw a lack of "passion" for art. The French had it, but Americans did not. The difference then between Saint-Gaudens and an artist like J. Q. A. Ward, while also very skilled, is that Ward's art is linear, precise, focusing on details.[24]

For Taft, Saint-Gaudens was "artIess," a theme continued by other writers to the present day. The art historian Chandler Rathfon Post equated this subtlety of expression with the basic American need for order:

... perhaps the thing that strikes one as most American is Saint-Gaudens's sobriety. [His figures] have what we like to think is an American staidness and dignity.... He sacrificed the wonderful ebullition of French sculpture and cultivated the emotional restraint proverbially ascribed to New England and to some degree typical of the whole nation; but he possessed the incomparable gift of pouring such life into his most static figures that even the best of what had gone before in American sculpture seems torpid by contrast.

According to Post, Saint-Gaudens's "poise" and "sedate poetry" make his realism "always bridled."[25]

This point, which most modern critics have missed, was key to a nineteenth-century understanding of Saint-Gaudens's work. Critics today tend to think that the artists of the last century sought realism as an end in itself, but they did not. Simply making something look like what it represented was not enough. As one critic for the New York Times described it, "realism is only a step to something else."[26] Post went on to describe "many other essentially American qualities, such as his hostility to any affectations or meretricious appeals and his respect for American conventions in an almost absolute avoidance of the nude." Other qualities included "a simple nobility and hardihood, the rough naturalness that belongs to a young nation, the curious fusion of reticence and frankness."[27]

Taft, in describing Olin Warner's sculpture The Garrison, also expressed what he liked about Saint-Gaudens. "It has something of the same quality as Mr. Saint Gaudens's 'Farragut', a repose which is deceptive, and which goes far to enhance the effect of internal activity. Within the quiet, unaccentuated contours of this composition is a slumbering fire, a tension betrayed only by the clutch of the hands and the vigorous turn of the head." The piece reflects "individuality"; it is "alive" and "aflame with energy and emotion, not a single stroke has carried it to excess." The Garrison is "a pent-up volcano."[28]

For Taft and others, Saint-Gaudens epitomized the spirit of America in the late nineteenth century. His rugged appearance and the confident sense of honesty, clarity, and simple truth exemplified in his sculpture and in his own public image were central to nineteenth-century cultural belief and to the newfound awareness in America of the nation's changed position in the world.

Saint-Gaudens himself points to the embodiment of character as key in sculpture. In a letter written on February 21, 1881, to his friend the editor Richard Watson Gilder, the sculptor wrote: "There seems to be a current opinion that a thing to be good must be unfinished. The finish or lack of finish has nothing to do in the classification of a work as good or bad -- its character, regardless of that, is the thing. For sculpture is simply one of the means of expressing oneself, according to the temperament of the worker."[29]

One of the young artists Saint-Gaudens met in the 1870s was the painter Will Low (1853-1932) Low was important to Saint-Gaudens in many ways, assisting with the completion of the St. Thomas reredos and the founding of the Society of American Artists. In his memoirs, A Chronicle of Friendships 1873-1900, published in 1908, he recalled a story that summarized Saint-Gaudens's skill as an artist and the esteem in which he was held by his European colleagues. Low and a French artist stood in front of Saint-Gaudens's Amor Caritas (see pages 29 and 84-87) in Paris, a work that had been criticized as "not sculpture." The Frenchman replied:

Here is a gallery filled with modern sculpture, some of it living, and some of it dead. The greater part shows technical ability of a high order, but how infrequently the quality of expression is of equal import, and how few that we cannot trace back to some previous work. Here is a work pregnant with meaning; of a symbolism that appeals to all; that is novel and personal in its presentation; whose facture we hardly consider, so appropriate are the technical methods suited to its theme. Our friend denies that it is sculpture, it may be something better; it is individual, it is beautiful, beyond dispute it is Art.[30]

Saint-Gaudens did not write much about his artistic theories, deliberately avoiding any such pontificating on a subject that was, for him, more inner-directed. He spoke about the subject briefly in his Reminiscences.

I thought that art seemed to be the concentration of the experience and sensations of life in painting, literature, sculpture and particularly acting, which accounts for the desire in artists to have realism, However there is still the feeling of the lack of something in the simple representation of some indifferent action. The imagination must be able to bring up the scenes, incidents, that impress us in life, condense them, and the truer they are to nature the better the imagination may condemn that which has impressed us beautifully as well as the strong or characteristic or ugly.[31]



Saint-Gaudens established himself as a teacher early in his career. He taught in a direct, participatory way but allowed students to find their own answers to problems as well. Several accounts of his teaching exist, and all emphasize the importance he placed on seriousness of purpose, details of anatomy and structure, and what he called "fragrance" -- the unspoken quality that separated good art from bad. Although he himself had been taught primarily in Europe, his teaching approach was American in the sense that he treated all students equally.[32] Whether young or old, men or women, they all were accorded the same combination of gruffness and tenderness.[33] He was clearly concerned with his pupils as individuals, not as a faceless crowd. He gave what he received; to serious students he would devote whatever time and effort was needed, but to students who were not serious he gave little or no attention. A man with a wonderful sense of humor, Saint-Gaudens did not admit humor in the workplace. He urged his assistants to combat the stress of work through vigorous outdoor recreation, and at his studio in Cornish, New Hampshire, he installed a swimming tank, golf course, billiard table, weights, lawn bowls, and a large toboggan run. But this kind of pleasure had its own place.

The question of training occupied Saint-Gaudens's attention to a great degree. Initially convinced that America could not offer adequate training, Saint-Gaudens changed his mind by the end of his life. In 1905 he wrote to a young student:

The older I grow, the more and more I am convinced that as thorough and adequate training can be had here as abroad, that the work by the students here is equal to that produced by those in Europe, and that belief in this by the students will help greatly in their education. Of course Europe, with its wealth and glory of art, must be seen and imbibed sooner or later. That goes without saying. But I believe, for the American, the best time for that is after he has had a sound academical foundation here. It is time to realize that the training here is excellent, and that we are constantly adding to the list of men of high achievement whose education has been at home....[34]

What may not be adequately remembered is the impact Saint-Gaudens had on effecting the change he refers to in his letter. He was in a position to rewrite the story of art education in the United States, and he began with his own studio. His assistants operated in a traditional workshop system familiar since the Renaissance. They worked in a hierarchic pattern with the master, Saint-Gaudens, at the top. At the second level were fully trained sculptors, who still received advice from Saint-Gaudens. Below these were assistants in training, and beneath them a staff of specialists and general laborers. Here, however, Saint-Gaudens gave equal attention to all, and all were encouraged to reach their full potential as artists.[35]

Saint-Gaudens's teaching at the Art Students League in New York City, from 1888 to 1896, reached numerous younger sculptors, but his teaching did not end there. Through his participation in clubs, fairs, public exhibitions, and art societies, he reached out throughout the country. Several arts societies -- the Society of American Artists, National Sculpture Society, and American Academy in Rome -- were founded with his active participation.[36] He was involved with all the major exhibitions -- including the World's Columbian Exposition, Barye Exhibition, and Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1878, 1889, and 1900 -- as a commissioner or major organizing force. In 1901 Saint-Gaudens, along with Charles F. McKim (see above and page 90), Daniel Burnham (1846-1912), and Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. (1870-1957), was named to the Senate Park Planning Commission for the District of Columbia by Senator James McMilIan. Thus Saint-Gaudens played a role in setting the course for the nation's capital, retaining the spirit of Pierre Charles L'Enfant (1754-1825) and the grace and beauty of the city's central core.[37]

The process of founding the American Academy in Rome met a central goal of the late nineteenth century: to achieve lasting benefit through the use of culture. The accomplishments of Saint-Gaudens, Stanford White, and others in his circle were furthered by the unique character of the time in which they lived. The great post-Civil War commercial families such as the Vanderbilts, Goulds, and others built individual fortunes but also felt an obligation to use their fortunes for public betterment. Parks, museums, and other public spaces were built. The art of Saint-Gaudens characterized the aspirations of these people in images of simple dignity and strength.

An American facility to train artists in the heart of classical Rome was a dream inspired by the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, which was intended, among other things, to exhibit America's power as a nation and as a culture to the rest of the World.[38] Spurred on by Charles McKim, architect and friend of Saint-Gaudens's, the idea arose out of a growing confidence in the United States that at last supplanted the long-standing fear of the country's cultural inferiority to Europe. The American Academy was organized to offer to American artists in Rome the same opportunity provided by the Villa Medici, which, however, was open only to French citizens. Saint-Gaudens was a strong force in the creation of this academy, as he had been in the development of the Society of American Artists. He himself had been permitted entry into the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, for which he was always grateful.

At the same time Saint-Gaudens's own ideas about European versus American art training were changing. In 1893 he still believed that Europe provided a better source of cultural awakening, but by 1905, when the American Academy was founded, he was writing of the importance of American artists staying in this country to learn about art. What changed in those twelve years was America's place in the world community. The constant fears of: critics that the country was inferior culturally had begun to dissipate, and the triumph of the World's CoIumbian Exposition had shown to Europeans and Americans themselves how insignificant was the separation between the Old and the New World.

In Saint-Gaudens's art can be seen a reflection of the country's growth and maturity. The blend of classical structure and order with an easy modern sensibility was characteristic of the nineteenth century. Saint-Gaudens's teaching had gone far in bringing about a change in the public's acceptance of sculpture as a popular art medium. By the time of his death, sculptors were fully represented in art exhibitions and fairs. The collecting of sculpture by individuals, while still behind painting to a considerable degree, had grown as well. That sculpture could be more than decoration was becoming clearly understood. Most important, a new generation of men and women had entered the arts, encouraged by Saint-Gaudens and the societies and programs he had helped develop. His conscious effort to develop systems and procedures for equitable treatment of all artists is a contribution for which he has never been given adequate credit.

While Saint-Gaudens's legacy was thus a wide-reaching one, his own vision of sculpture would shift again in the public imagination. Soon after his death and particularly around the time of World War I, American culture
changed dramatically. Saint-Gaudens's direct depiction of people and events lost some of its appeal as the fashion for abstraction of forms took the ascendency in art. Nonetheless, his students and the artists influenced by his training continued on into the twentieth century. Today Saint-Gaudens is once again recognized as a central figure in the art of the developing nation, bridging the gap between the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries and laying the groundwork for what was to come.


I. The literature on Augustus Saint-Gaudens is extensive. The catalogue raisonné is John H. Dryfhout's The Work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (Hanover, N.H., and London: University Press of New England, 1982). The most recent comprehensive study is from the Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, and Musée national de la Coopération franco-américaine, Chateau de Blérancourt, Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1848-1907: A Master of American Sculpture (Paris: Somogy Éditions d'Art, 1999).

2. Henry S. Commager, Book World, February 8, 1970, p. 10.

3. Saint-Gaudens perfected the technique of low-relief portrait sculpture, the subject of an important exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in 1969. See John H. Dryfhout and Beverly Cox, Augustus Saint-Gaudens: The Portrait Reliefs (Washington, D.C.: National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, 1969).

4. Adeline Adams (1859-1948), wife of the sculptor Herbert Adams (1858-1945) and author of numerous writings about sculpture, described this quality of Saint-Gaudens's work in The Spirit of American Sculpture (New York: The National Sculpture Society, 1929): "[H]e never forgot that the snare of the picturesque was in his path, as it is in the path of every sculptor trying to infuse a genial human warmth into the sculptural order" (p. 48). The Adamses were both friends and neighbors of Saint-Gaudens in Cornish, N.H. The idea that the genre quality so admired in painting was inappropriate to sculpture was repeated in a New York Times review of Saint-Gaudens's portrait Theodore Dwight Woolsey at Yale University. The reviewer admired the portrait but not the very large sleeves of the man's academic gown. "It may be questioned, nevertheless, whether Mr. Saint-Gaudens was wise to make so much of the gown with puffed sleeves. It looks as if this part were a concession to some desire on the part of the purchaser or sitter, rather than the proposition of the sculptor; for Saint-Gaudens could hardly fail to understand that so much obtrusion of what is called in sculptor slang the 'picturesque' would detract to a certain extent from the nobility of the face" ("Varnishing Day Scenes," New York Times, March 16, 1880).

5. The first serious criticism of Saint-Gaudens came in 1881, with two articles by the poet and editor Richard Watson Gilder (1844-1909) and the art critic Mariana Griswold Van Rensselaer (1851-1934) about the newly dedicated Farragut Monument. See Richard W. Gilder, "The Farragut Monument" Scribner's Magazine 22 (June 1881): 161-167, and Mariana G. Van Rensselaer, "Mr. St. Gaudens's Statue of Admiral Farragut in New York," American Architect and Building News 10 (September 10, 1881): 119-20. Van Rensselaer later wrote an important essay about the Standing Lincoln in Chicago; see "St. Gaudens's Lincoln," Century Magazine 35 (November 1887): 37-39. These three articles were significant in the history of American art, as well as important for Saint-Gaudens's career, as they spoke seriously and completely about the artistic and spiritual qualities that made the two monuments not only "modern" but also seminal in the development of American art. The two critics became close friends of the sculptor. Saint-Gaudens created portrait reliefs of both, Gilder's portrait in 1879, and Van Rensselaer's in 1888. Gilder wrote the epic poem "The Fire Divine" in 1907 in memory of Saint-Gaudens.

6. Saint-Gaudens paints an amusing picture of his father's creative approach to business in The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, ed. Homer Saint-Gaudens, 2 vols. (New York: Century, 1913) 1:12-17.

7. Ibid., 1:129, 285.

8. The art world of New York City before the Civil War is described in Catherine Hoover Voorsanger and John K. Howat, eds., Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825-1861 (New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Yale University Press, 2000). The three essays of special interest are John K. Howat, "Private Collectors and Public Spirit: A Selective View," 83-108; Thayer TolIes, "Modeling a Reputation: The American Sculptor and New York City," 135-68, and Carrie Rebora Barratt, "Mapping the Venues: New York City Art Exhibitions," 47-82.

9. OIin Levi Warner (1844-1896) and Howard Roberts (1843-1900) were, along with Saint-Gaudens, the first Americans to study sculpture in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. They studied with François Joulfroy (1806-82), a member with Saint-Gaudens's friends Paul Dubois (1829-1905) and Antonin Mercié (1845-1916) of the Neo-Florentine circle of artists in Paris. Associated with the Néo-Grecs of Jean-Leon Gérôme in painting (also greatly admired by Saint-Gaudens), these artists were seeking to recapture the style of the Renaissance, combining the classical with the living, "breathing" quality of the Renaissance. This is significant as a basis for Saint-Gaudens' later style. See Édouard Papet, "Saint-Gaudens and France," in Augustus Saint-Gaudens, (1848-1907): A Master of American Sculpture , 23-30.

10. The influence of impressionism on Saint-Gaudens is largely unexplored. He spoke and wrote against it, yet the style is reflected especially in his later reliefs, works in which the surface texture is manipulated in such a way to capture and direct light.

11. In the Reminiscences, Saint-Gaudens's son Homer describes the majority of American sculptors in this early time as "mostly craftsmen rather than thinkers" (1:58). The question of why an American would leave the country for training is addressed by his son: "At first glance it might be thought that ... there surely could be no vital need for Saint-Gaudens to leave this land.... But on a little consideration it becomes obvious that, though there were many who were learning, as yet no capable men had arrived at that stage where they either cared to teach, or were able to do so" (1:59).

12. Lorado Taft, The History of American Art (New York: MacMillan, 1917); see particularly the chapter "The History of American Sculpture."

13. Just before and after the Civil War the newspapers were full of stories about the perceived weakness of American art in relation to European art. Most writers equated artistic merit with monetary value. Their own doubt in recognizing real from forged European art was also a basis for their criticism. If they were unable to recognize true artistic quality, they tended to push the art aside. This is one reason that genre art became dominant: anyone could understand and clearly see what was being depicted. An article in the New York Times on April 1, 1873, stated: "Art, we may all admit, is cosmopolitan, and as regards the artist, we do not ask where he was born, but how good is his work. If better pictures can be brought from abroad than our own artists can produce, and sold for less money than our own artists can afford to paint for, there is manifestly good reason for such importations. But when so many really good American painters wait so long for recognition, when they are pushed to the wall and their work neglected in favor of canvases from overseas of inferior
merit, it is right to expostulate and to combat the evil."

14. In an article entitled "American and Foreign Art: Our Shortcomings," which appeared in the New York Times on May 18, 1873, the reviewer questioned the predominance of the Hudson River School, wondering why European artists "find opportunity to paint... the grander phases and more striking combinations of nature." He admired Frederic Church (1826-1900) and Albert Bierstadt (1830-1902) but found that "Lake George and Newport, the Adirondacks and the White Mountains have been produced and reproduced until the public is absolutely sick of them; but places of historical interest ... are never touched." Coming just six years after Saint-Gaudens left for Europe, this article indicates that popular taste was in transition. The America Saint-Gaudens returned to had made a radical shift in taste.

15. David Maitland Armstrong, painter and diplomat, describes this moment of time in Day Before Yesterday: Reminiscences of a Varied Life (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1920), 258-87. Armstrong was significant in Saint-Gaudens's career as a friend as well as a catalyst. His own contacts allowed him to introduce Saint-Gaudens to potential clients as well as to artist friends who had a major impact on the sculptor's career.

16. Armstrong, quoting the New York Times, in Day Before Yesterday, 269-70.

17. The point cannot be stressed too much. The names of the artists that Saint-Gaudens attracted to his circle form a compendium of modernism. Whether in painting, literature, architecture, or sculpture, these were all people who were pushing the boundaries of culture, creating a cosmopolitan world that was neither European nor American, but the best of both. The people who sat for portraits by Saint-Gaudens were a specific group of artists and literary persons who were promoting modernism in the arts, ranging from the writer William Dean Howells to the art critic Mariana Van Rensselaer.

18. This debate took tangible form in 1877 with the founding of the Society of American Artists. Unhappy with the National Academy's rejection of one of his sculptural figures, Saint-Gaudens founded the society in June 1877 at the house of the editor Richard Watson Gilder, with his wife, the painter Helena DeKay Gilder, and the artists Walter Shirlaw and Wyatt Eaton. In subsequent years the organization included R. Swain Gifford, Louis C. Tiffany, Olin Warner, Homer D. Martin, Samuel Coleman, John La Farge, Thomas Moran, J. Alden Weir, Thomas Eakins, Eastman Johnson, George Inness, and Alexander Wyant, among others. The society exhibited the work of women artists as well as artists who followed no formal style, such as Albert Pinkham Ryder. The critic Clarence Cook attended the first meeting and wrote the opening review of the new group; see Reminiscences 1:184-89. The society remained active for about twenty years before being absorbed into the National Academy. The two organizations working simultaneously created a great deal of public debate about art and the question of what was truly American in the newer work exhibited by the society.

19. Although Augustus Saint-Gaudens spelled his name variously, sometimes leaving out the hyphen and sometimes using the abbreviation "St.," he most frequently spelled it "Saint-Gaudens." To distinguish himself, his sculptor brother Louis (1854-1913) always used the abbreviated form -- St. Gaudens. However, the public seemed unaware of the distinctions, and even critics sometimes misspelled the name. Augustus could make light of his name, allowing his close associates to call him "the Saint." His son Homer (1880-1958), like his father, always used the hyphen and the full spelling.

20. Taft, 9.

21. Nineteenth-century French sculpture is discussed in many sources. See, for instance, Maurice Rheims, Nineteenth Century Sculpture (Paris: Arts et Métiers Graphiques, 1972), which was later translated by Robert E. Wolf (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1977) Taft and other contemporaries all saw the importance of French art as a turning point in the development of American art. It was a true cultural break as sculptors such as Warner and Saint-Gaudens studied with innovative French artists who were themselves breaking with tradition. The influence on Saint-Gaudens of art movements such as the Pre-Raphaelites and impressionism has not yet been fully explored. Although he toyed with Pre-Raphaelite style in the Morgan tomb angels and the Amor Caritas, he soon abandoned it. Impressionism was something he spoke of negatively, and yet it is visible clearly in his portrait reliefs.

22. It is interesting that a number of these artists were also familiar with the Barbizon school in France.

23. Taft, 9.

24. Ibid., 222-23. It is here that Taft describes Saint-Gaudens as "artless."

25. Chandler Rathfon Post, A History of European and American Sculpture from the Early Christian Period to the

Present Day (Boston: Harvard University Press, 1921).

26. New York Times, December 21, 1887, in an article about the painter George Inness. This concept is more fully described in Henry J. Duffy, "New York City Collections 1865-1895" (Ph.D. diss., Rutgers, 2001).

27. Post, 242-43. There were other artists who shared these qualities: Taft describes Olin Warner as following a similar beginning, also studying in France with Jouffroy, Carpeaux, Falguière, and Mercié as well as participating in French history as a member of the Foreign Legion fighting during the Commune in 1870. Back in America in 1872, he found no place for his sculpture, and it forced him back to his farm, where he essentially gave up art entirely. He returned in 1878 with a partnership with Daniel Cottier in New York.

28. Taft, 268ff. The statement about The Garrison appears on p. 273. Contemporary critics, who could see the almost identical French training and the effect that it had on both artists linked Warner and Saint-Gaudens. One article described their election as members of the National Academy of Art and what that might mean to their role as founding members of the Society of American Artists. A critic in the New York Times wrote on May 20, 1889: "The election to the rank of National Academician of the sculptors St. Gaudens and OIin Warner is only justice, if a somewhat tardy justice, done to a couple of artists identified with a movement which was once a protest against the stagnation of the Academy. The older institution has at last seen the wisdom of absorbing the better element among the younger men who once objected to its ways. What affect this policy will have upon the Society of American Artists remains to be seen. This year's exhibition of the society is not inferior but superior to others gone before; at the same time the Academy can always secure the best work of any artist, provided steps are taken to encourage him, because artists must live, and the Academy exhibitions remain the best market for work. Yet it would be a thousand pities were the younger society to lose heart and surrender its yearly shows, for it has been most effective in keeping the older up to the mark."

29. The letter, dated February 21, 1881, is part of the artist's papers preserved at Dartmouth College, Special Collections. The text is given in The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, edited and amplified by Homer Saint-Gaudens (New York: Century, 1913), 1: 278.

30. Will H. Low, A Chronicle of Friendships 1873-1900 (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1908), 505.

31. Reminiscences, 2: 16.

32. Saint-Gaudens's teaching style is described in the Reminiscences, 2:3-39. Saint-Gaudens was an inspirational but tough teacher. His temper could be explosive, but his assistants and pupils all found his personal attention and seriousness to be energizing. The author Royal Cortissoz (1869-1948) summarized: "It was a fine thing that he was generous in encouragement, that he went out of his way to praise and help; but I think it was even finer that he created around himself a stimulating atmosphere, and somehow made one feel that what he must take as a matter of course was the hardest kind of hard work and the highest possible standard of excellence. I do not know how better to express the ideal that he stood for than to say that from the Saint-Gaudens point of view the doing of a scamped or insincere piece of work was a fairly shameful performance, a kind of moral wrong." Quoted in Lorado Taft, "Augustus Saint-Gaudens," Modern Tendencies in Sculpture: The Scammon Lectures at the Art Institute of Chicago, 1917 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1917) 116.

33. Saint-Gaudens deserves credit for supporting men and women equally at a time when that was not usually the case. He was really concerned only with the drive to achieve the ideal in art.

34. The letter is to Isabel Moore Kimball, dated December 17, 1905. The letter is quoted in Reminiscences, 2:39. Kimball became a sculptor, studying with Herbert Adams. Her works include The Fountain in Winona, Minnesota, the Richards Tablet at Vassar College, and the War Memorial Tablet for Essex County, New York. She exhibited at the National Association of Women Painters and Sculptors in New York City in 1924. Her studio was on Fulton Street in Brooklyn.

35. Saint-Gaudens built a small private studio just inside the forest at the edge of the lawn at Aspet, in Cornish, N.H., to serve a special need as a retreat for members of the studio. It is a subtle point but characteristic of Saint-Gaudens to recognize the need for both group interaction and privacy in the creative process. The small studio is used to this day as the workshop of the sculptor in residence at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site.

36. The National Sculpture Society, founded in 1893 by Saint-Gaudens, Richard Morris Hunt, Daniel Chester French, and others, was a crucial link in the developing concept to provide adequate support for American sculptors. As he and Armstrong had done in Paris, works for society exhibits were chosen by a jury of peers, not according to political or social standing. Founded in the same year as the World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago and a year before the initiation of the idea for the American Academy in Rome, the National Sculpture Society was part of a larger drive by Saint-Gaudens and others to formalize the training and support systems for artists in America, using a democratic inclusiveness not found in European counterparts.

37. The Mall was given particular attention by the committee. The Lincoln Memorial site is believed to have been chosen with Saint-Gaudens's involvement. The sculptor was also the driving force behind placing limitations on the proliferation of monuments in Arlington Cemetery on the hillside by the Lee Mansion. He was also an adviser on the decoration of the Library of Congress. See Report on the Senate Committee on the District of Columbia on the Improvement of the Park System of the District of Columbia, U.S. Senate Committee on the District of Columbia, 57th Congress, Ist Session, 1902, S. Rept. 166.

38. For the founding of the American Academy, see Henry J. Duffy, "Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the Founding of the American Academy in Rome," Essays in Honor of Matthew Baigell's Retirement from the Department of Art History, Rutgers University (Philadelphia: 90th Annual College Art Association Conference, 2002). The effort became one of the sculptor's last concentrated attempts to provide for the new generation of artists. He wanted there to be a place where Americans could absorb the artistic wealth of Rome while being free of the care of the simple logistical problems of a young artist in a foreign country. Saint-Gaudens himself was essentially "on his own" in Rome as a young man and no doubt remembered how difficult it was to find studio space and earn sufficient money to maintain his studies.

About the author

HENRY J. DUFFY is Curator of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire. An expert on the art and culture of the Gilded Age, he has been a teacher, lecturer, author, and contributor to television programs.


rev. 11/20/10

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