Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in 1848 in Dublin, Ireland. His father, Bernard, was a shoemaker from Aspet in Gascony, France, who married an Irishwoman, Mary McGuiness. A few months after Augustus' birth, the family emigrated to the United States to escape the famine, settling in New York City. In 1861 Augustus began his apprenticeships to French cameo cutters in New York, first in the studio of Louis Avet and later, in 1864, with Jules Le Brethon. He also attended classes at the National Academy of Design and the Cooper Union. Early in 1867, with his parents' backing, Saint-Gaudens embarked for Paris. Supporting himself as a cameo cutter, he studied first at the Ecole gratuite de Dessin (Petite Ecole) and, beginning in 1868, in the atelier of the sculptor François Jouffroy (1806-1882), who recommended his admission to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Saint-Gaudens became one of the first Americans to study sculpture at the Ecole.
In November of 1870, the Franco-Prussian War prompted Saint-Gaudens to move to Rome, where he began modeling Hiawatha (marble, 1874-1875; private collection) and made cameos and busts of American visitors. With assistance from one patron, Montgomery Gibbs, he returned to New York in September 1872 and began work on trademark panels for the Adams Express Building in Chicago. He taught his younger brother Louis (1854-1913) cameo cutting, and the two went to Rome together in 1873. Augustus modeled a number of portrait busts and copies after the antique, produced in marble in collaboration with Louis and other assistants. But he was above all a modeler whose greatest achievements would be realized in bronze. In 1874 he became engaged to Augusta Homer, who was in Rome studying painting.
Seeking commissions that would provide security for his marriage, Saint-Gaudens returned to New York in 1875, where he designed ornamental metalwork for Tiffany Studios. Around that time he met the painter John LaFarge (1835-1910) and the architects Stanford White (1854-1906) and Charles McKim (1847-1909), who became life-long friends and collaborators. La Farge encouraged Saint-Gaudens to try modeling portrait reliefs and to seek the commission for a monument to Admiral Farragut planned for Madison Square Park. He secured the Farragut commission in 1876. In 1876-1877 he also obtained commissions for tombs and monuments and, with La Farge's help and collaboration, for the reredos for Saint Thomas' Church (polychrome cement composition relief panels, 1877; destroyed by fire in 1905). After a sketch of his was rejected for the National Academy of Design exhibition, Saint-Gaudens joined Richard and Helena Gilder and others in founding the Society of American Artists. He finally married Augusta Homer on 4 June 4 1877; they left for Paris two days later.
In Paris Saint-Gaudens began modeling the portraits in low relief, which would become a leitmotiv of his career, and worked on the Farragut Monument. Stanford White, who came to live with the newlyweds, collaborated on designs for the base, the first of many such projects. With its allusions to Donatello's Saint George (c. 1416-1417, Florence, Museo Nazionale del Bargello), the Farragut Monument evoked the style of the Italian Renaissance as well as the French Ecole des Beaux-Arts, spurning the neo-classicism that had prevailed in American monuments. It was completed in 1880, just as Saint-Gaudens' son Homer (1880-1958) was born, and unveiled in 1881. Its quality and innovative character won Saint-Gaudens his first great public success.
Numerous commissions followed in the 1880s and 1890s. These included two major interior decorative projects for New York mansions between 1881 and 1883: the home of Cornelius Vanderbilt II (mantelpiece preserved in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York) and the Henry Villard House. The latter was designed by McKim, Mead, and White, with sculpture executed by Louis Saint-Gaudens under his brother's direction. Monument commissions included The Puritan for Merrick Park in Springfield, Massachusetts (1883-1886), and the standing statue of Abraham Lincoln for Lincoln Park, Chicago (1884-1887). An eighteen-foot statue of a nude Diana (1886-1891), made of gilded sheet copper to stand as a weather vane atop Stanford White's Madison Square Garden, proved too large and was replaced by a thirteen-foot version (1892-1894, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Simultaneously he worked on his most celebrated funerary monument, the Adams Memorial (1886-1891, Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.), designed by Stanford White. The heavily veiled, seated figure, with its shadowed, introspective face, summons myriad emotions only beginning with grief for Marion Adams, the wife of historian Henry Adams, who committed suicide in 1885.
Diana and the Adams Memorial statues, at opposite ends of the expressive spectrum, share an ideal of beauty that came to life for the sculptor in his model Davida Johnson Clark, who became his mistress in the early 1880s, and bore him a son, Louis P. Clark, in 1889. Aside from Diana, works that are generally recognized as portraits of Davida include the much-admired Amor Caritas, an entranced, standing winged woman in richly modeled drapery, executed in variously sized bronze high reliefs, beginning in 1898. This figure was evidently conceived around 1880 for the tomb of Edward D. Morgan (unfinished, models destroyed), employed for the Vanderbilt mantelpiece caryatids in 1881-1883, and perfected on the tomb of Anna Maria Smith (1897, Newport, Rhode Island; signed by Louis Saint-Gaudens).
Arguably Saint-Gaudens' masterpiece is the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common, in progress from 1884 to 1897, combining statuary and high relief in bronze. It commemorates the young Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the regiment of African-American volunteers who died in great numbers with him in a heroic assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, in 1863. Saint-Gaudens' gifts for portraiture, cadenced composition, and reserved expression calling forth projected emotions make this an exceptionally powerful war memorial. His last great public commission was the Sherman Monument of 1892-1903 on Grand Army Plaza in Central Park, New York, with a statue of General William Tecumseh Sherman on horseback led forward by a winged Victory.
In his peripatetic career Saint-Gaudens shuttled between Paris, Rome, his New York studio, and the one at his country estate of Aspet, in Cornish, New Hampshire, which was purchased in 1891 and named for the French town where his father was born. Diagnosed with cancer in 1900, he continued working with the help of assistants, recovering from a disastrous studio fire in 1904 and persevering until his death in Cornish in 1907. His late productions included the Stevenson Memorial of 1902 for Saint Giles' Cathedral, Edinburgh, incorporating a version of the famous portrait relief of Robert Louis Stevenson that he had modeled in 1887. In 1905-1907 he designed a new classical coinage for the United States mint, including ten-dollar and twenty-dollar gold pieces.
Saint-Gaudens took a leading role in planning the World's Columbian Exposition of 1893 in Chicago, for which architects, planners, sculptors, and painters together created an ephemeral but influential White City. His continuing collaborations with architects and planners, along with his tremendous talent, promoted increased recognition of the sculptural profession in the United States. He was a founder of the National Sculpture Society in 1893 and of the American Academy in Rome (1894-1895, chartered 1905). His many pupils included Frederick W. Macmonnies (1863-1937) and Bela Lyon Pratt (1867-1917). [This is an edited version of the artist's biography published in the NGA Systematic Catalogue]
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Butler, Ruth, and Suzanne Glover Lindsay, with Alison Luchs, Douglas Lewis, Cynthia J. Mills, and Jeffrey Weidman. European Sculpture of the Nineteenth Century. The Collections of the National Gallery of Art Systematic Catalogue. Washington, D.C., 2000: 453-454.