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Lesson Plans Recommended for Grades 9-12

Introduction | Lesson 1 | Lesson 2 | Lesson 3

Lesson 2: Saint-Gaudens, the Shaw Memorial, Art Historians, and the Critics

Discussion questions and activities:
In this lesson, students will consider documentary evidence and commentary presented by scholars and art historians over the years in regard to Saint-Gaudens' Shaw Memorial, and examine Saint-Gaudens' own words about his masterpiece.

Have students read the following five statements and then answer the questions at the end of this activity.

"Through all of this turmoil the Shaw monument had come to bear more and more upon my mind, and finally reached the long looked-for day of its unveiling. There had been much good natured abuse of me for the time expended on the bas-relief. But it was impossible to carry out my idea otherwise, in a great degree because of the absence of remuneration. This I mention without the slightest trace of regret or reproach, as the sum I consented to execute the monument was ample to provide an adequate and dignified work. It was the extraordinary opportunity, the interest of the task, and my enthusiasm, that led to a development far beyond what was expected of me. And I held it a great joy to be able to carry out my idea as I wished. Whatever regret I have is that I could not achieve many things which I felt might have been done with the general scheme, though much of it was to my taste, especially enclosing the monument between the two trees which frame the relief so admirably, and the felicity of the location as well as the architecture which supports the monument, the thought and work of Mr. Charles F. McKim."

"My own delay I excuse on the ground that a sculptor's work endures for so long that it is next to a crime for him to neglect to do everything that lies in his power to execute a result that will not be a disgrace. There is something extraordinarily irritating, when it is not ludicrous, in a bad statue. It is plastered up before the world to stick and stick for centuries, while man and nations pass away. A poor picture goes into the garret, books are forgotten, but the bronze remains, to amuse or to shame the populace and perpetuate one of our various idiocies. It is an impertinence and an offense, and that it does not create riots proves the wonderful patience of the human animal."

From The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, his autobiography, published after his death.

"A Man who could labor upon a work like the Shaw for fourteen years, fairly loving it into noble perfection, has the right to leave the result to time and to the work itself."

From Modern Tendencies in Sculpture by Lorado Taft. Taft was a contemporary of Saint-Gaudens who was an accomplished sculptor in his own right and a highly regarded critic of American sculpture. He is noted for his volume The History of American Sculpture, which remains a classic in the field.

27th January, 1897

Dear Mr. Saint-Gaudens:

A few days since the photograph of your beautiful Alto relievo reached me, I sincerely thank you for the kind thoughts which prompts the sending of it to me. Owing to Mr. McKim's kindness, I am able to take in exactly how it is places opposite the State House, so that I can appreciate how finely it will appear. The spirit of the men carrying on the enthusiasm of the looks on Colonel Shaw's statue is to me wonderfully like and the way he sits his horse seems to resemble his seat perfectly.

I should think that you would be immensely proud of having succeeded so much in making his statue alone without the men surrounding him. The Negros' faces are most interesting, and I have enjoyed studying them.

I had hardly expected to receive so gratifying a photo of the bas-relief as this is. I can only join the numbers of it's admirers. Truly I thank you for remembering me in this way.

Cordially and gratefully yours

Anna K. Shaw

This letter is in the correspondence of Augustus Saint-Gaudens housed at the Dartmouth College Library.

"He portrays the humble soldiers with varying characteristics of pathetic devotion, and from the halting uniformity of their movement, even from the uncouthness of their ill fitting uniforms, from such details as the water bottles and rifles, secures an impressiveness of decorative composition, distinguished by virile contrasts and repetitions of line and by vigorous handsomeness of light and shade. Mingled with our enjoyment of these qualities is the emotion aroused by the intent and steadfastness onward movement of the troops, whose doglike trustfulness is contrasted with the serene elevation of their white leader."

This commentary appeared in 1913 in art critic Charles H. Caffin's American Masters of Sculpture. This book was published in the same year as was The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens.

"Frederick Douglass' fears came to pass in the 1880s and 1890s. Only a handful of Civil War memorials commemorated the service of African-American soldiers. Even when remembered in monuments, their role would often be marginalized, either given postures of deference and separation or placed in the background.... Even the monument built by the Boston Brahmins to the memory of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the fallen of the all-volunteer regiment, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, remained ambivalent about the question of race and the Civil War. The Shaw memorial, dedicated in 1897, was created by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and placed in the Boston Commons across from the Massachusetts statehouse. It featured a bas-relief that depicted the young colonel on horseback with his men marching in the background. On the back of the monument, inscribed on the stone pedestal, the Shaw Monument Committee listed the names of the officers, all white, killed in the attack on Fort Wagner in 1863, but included none of the names of the enlisted soldiers who died in the same attack. In his published memoirs, issued several years later, Saint-Gaudens displayed an attitude toward African Americans, particularly the models he hired for the Shaw monument, that was demeaning, patronizing, and racist."

This paragraph is from G. Kurt Pehlier's 1996 publication, Remembering War the American Way.

Reading analysis questions:

  1. What is Saint-Gaudens' attitude toward his own work? How does this reflect his opinion on sculpture in general?
  2. What does Taft's reaction say about the fourteen-year waiting period between the time Saint-Gaudens received the commission and the time it was unveiled? Do you agree with his argument? Why?
  3. What is Anna Shaw's response to the work depicting her husband? Do you think that it is possible to make a judgment such as hers from looking at a photograph? Why or why not?
  4. How is it that Charles Caffin's interpretation differs from those of Saint-Gaudens and Taft, considering that he wrote about the sculpture during the same time period? What might account for this difference?
  5. Why is it that Piehler's remarks contain less concern about the sculpture but more about the social context of the piece? What might account for this? Since his comments date 99 years after the memorial's dedication, what assessment can we make about the relationship between time and attitudes toward the Shaw Memorial? What changes in national consciousness may have influenced Piehler's interpretation?

Teachers wishing to analyze some of Saint-Gaudens' specific remarks toward his black models and African Americans in general can find his thoughts in his Reminiscences, vol. 1, pages 333-338. Teachers may wish to compare and contrast his viewpoints here with the first quote listed above and the following quote, relative to the dedication of the Shaw Memorial, which can also be found in Reminiscences.

"The impression of those old soldiers, passing the very spot where they left for the war so many years before, thrills me even as I write these words. They faced and saluted the relief. With the music playing 'John Brown's Body', a recall of what I had heard and seen thirty years before from my cameo-cutter's window. They seemed as if returning from the war, the troops of bronze marching in the opposite direction, the direction in which they had left for the front, and the young men there represented now showing these veterans the vigor and hope of youth. It was a consecration."
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Lesson PlansSelected BibliographyRelated WebsitesRelated Works
IntroductionThe ArtistHistorical BackgroundThe Memorial and Its ConservationThe ExhibitionTeaching Resources

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