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Art: American Renaissance Man

7 minute read
Robert Hughes

Since the end of the 18th century, America has produced any number of competent sculptors, even a few first-rate ones, but perhaps only two that brought authentic greatness to their own genres: David Smith and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Smith’s work was the climax of a tradition of open, sheet-metal sculpture that began in 1912 with Picasso’s tin guitar; Saint-Gaudens, at the end of the 19th century, epitomized the academic tradition of public speech through bronze casting, whose roots wound back to Donatello and Verrocchio.

The idea that one was as good as the other would have seemed macaronic 20 years ago, when Saint-Gaudens’ name was ignored by everyone except a few elderly loyalists and some young art historians with a revisionist glint in their eyes. He had been dropped from the list, an act comparable to (though, happily, not as final as) the dismantling of that masterpiece of New York public architecture, McKim, Mead and White’s Pennsylvania Station. However, work did survive, though unconsulted. Few visits were paid to his Shaw monument on Boston Common, the most intensely felt image of military commemoration ever made by an American; few Manhattanites bestowed more than a glance at his monuments to Admiral Farragut and General Sherman. Curators who, given the ticket, would cross the Atlantic to admire some steatopygous bauble by Niki de Saint-Phalle would hardly have crossed the street to see an Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Even today his rehabilitation is incomplete. Sculpture provokes fewer fantasies than painting; not everyone is willing to give Saint-Gaudens the place accorded, as a matter of course, to Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Eakins or Winslow Homer. Hence the interest of the current exhibition “Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Master Sculptor,” organized by Art Historian Kathryn Greenthal for New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Between his professional flowering in the 1880s and his death in 1907, Saint-Gaudens was seen as proof that America could produce art–an ability that, his patrons felt, went hand in hand with the triumph of the industrial Northeast after the Civil War. He gave the crude, grabbing Republic its lessons in symbolic deportment and visual elocution, and won its unstinted gratitude. If there was such a thing as the American Renaissance, then Saint-Gaudens embodied it in sculpture, as surely as the Roeblings did in engineering, Louis Comfort Tiffany in décor or McKim, Mead and White in architecture. Today portrait sculpture is dead, and the photo opportunity reigns. But Saint-Gaudens lived in an age when sculpture was thought the supreme mode of official commemoration, and the types he created are still very much with us. Our iconic sense of Abraham Lincoln as statesman, seamed, grave and erect, was created as much by Saint-Gaudens’ bronzes as by Mathew Brady’s photos. Our image of the repressive, striding Puritan with Bible, cloak and conical hat owes much of its existence to the rhetoric of Saint-Gaudens’ monument to Deacon Samuel Chapin in Springfield, Mass. His only nude female figure, the gilded sheet-copper Diana that he made as a weathervane figure for the top of Stanford White’s original Madison Square Garden in 1891, slender as any mannerist charmer from Fontainebleau, became in a literal way the Golden Girl of the ’90s in New York, as definitive a pinup as the Gibson Girl.

As an American, Saint-Gaudens had to make his relationship to the past from scratch, as his friend Henry Adams noted in The Education of Henry Adams: “In mind and person Saint-Gaudens was a survival of the 1500’s; he bore the stamp of the Renaissance . . . a lost soul that had strayed by chance into the twentieth century, and forgotten where it came from. He writhed and cursed at his ignorance . . . Saint-Gaudens was a child of Benvenuto Cellini, smothered in an American cradle.” The fact that he was also the child of European immigrants was no help there. Saint-Gaudens pronounced his name in the American way, but his paternity was French; his father, a Pyrenean bootmaker, married a colleen, settled in Dublin (where the future sculptor was born, in 1848), and fled with his family across the Atlantic to escape the terrible potato famine.

The young sculptor’s early training in New York was as a cameo cutter’s apprentice (and, since little is wasted, this preparation laid the ground for his later mastery of concise depiction in shallow relief). There was not much sculpture to see in New York in the 1860s, and most of it was earnestly neo-classical–the Jeffersonian language of earlier official art. What gave Saint-Gaudens’ career its peculiar spin was his departure for Paris in 1867, to study at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. For Saint-Gaudens was a competent carver, but his latent genius was for modeling: the buildup, lump by lump, pinch by pinch, touch after touch, of complex volumes out of clay or wax, later to be cast in bronze. Under the spell of the expressive, almost baroque forms that were in vogue in Paris, Saint-Gaudens learned to avoid the reductive fixity of the ideal antique. Besides, Beaux-Arts training was strong on collaboration–between architect and sculptor, sculptor and painter. The image of the Renaissance man was in the air. When Saint-Gaudens got back to New York in 1875, he met up with the men whose shared efforts would utterly transform the face of public art in America–the architects H.H. Richardson, Charles McKim and Stanford White, and the painter John La Farge. It seemed to all five of them that they held the makings of an American Renaissance.

Without question, Saint-Gaudens was one of the most fluent sculptors that ever lived, and his clients demanded fluency. He could and did turn his hand to anything, from a 10-ft. stone profile on a pyramid in Wyoming to the design of the century’s most beautiful coin, the gold 1907 double eagle. He could evoke any mood in a face, from the tremulous profile of an adolescent girl to the stormy jut of Farragut’s jaw. But the main impression his works leave, when seen together, is not so much of a rigid technique turning out predictable results (which one learns to expect from official sculptors) as of an extreme responsiveness and delicacy, an adoring pursuit of the nuance, which coexists with his fondness for declamation. He had no embarrassment, of course, in quoting his quattrocento idols: that was the natural use of a heritage. He took from Pisanello, Laurana, Cellini and Desiderio da Settignano; the pose of Farragut is Donatello’s St. George without a shield. Still, any academic hack can redo a prototype; Saint-Gaudens’ peculiar gift was to shadow these massive and well-known shapes with the tiny subliminal events of a dreaming hand. In 1880 he could give Dr. Henry Shiff’s bronze beard a labile, gratuitous beauty of texture akin to Monet; while, seen close up, the stubbled, worn face of Sherman is not a military mask but a psychological study as deep, in its way, as Rodin’s Balzac. There are weak things in this show, and not a few florid ones; and by its nature, it cannot give Saint-Gaudens’ monuments the coverage they need. But no matter: the illusions it dispels make up for the works it omits–and fresh converts to Saint-Gaudens can seek those out for themselves. –By Robert Hughes

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