As part of our Preserving a Legacy series, this coming fall SPI will be recording John Dryfhout, the former curator and superintendent of the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Dryfhout has lectured and written extensively on the work of Saint-Gaudens. His books include: The Work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, Augustus Saint-Gaudens: American Sculptor of the Gilded Age, and August Saint-Gaudens: The Portrait Reliefs.
A brief excerpt about Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ monumental sculpture “Standing Lincoln” from our recent conversation with John Dryfhout, emeritus curator of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, NH.
“Saint-Gaudens had the advantage of having seen Lincoln in the funeral corteges that were held in New York. So he was able to see the body of Lincoln, which he says in his reminisces⎯that were published at the end of his life⎯that he had gone several times to see Lincoln because, as a sculptor, he wanted to keep that image fixed in his mind.
Then he had another advantage in that one of his friends, a sculptor named Volk, had made a life-cast of Lincoln’s face. Life masks were usually done at an important point in a person’s life. It is kind of a gruesome thing that an individual has to go through and it is generally not welcomed by a very important person because they had to put straws into the nostrils so that the person could breath. And they have to stay quite still when this is being done. It is made with plaster, and the plaster dries and is then removed from the face. That becomes the negative and then another plaster is made from the negative and that becomes the positive. That’s how sculpture is made. So he had that to use. And, of course, there were multitudes of photographs.
Saint-Gaudens then found a man among the people that lived in the Cornish [NH] area that was the same size as Lincoln and he was engaged to be the model. [Saint-Gaudens] had an outfit created that was exactly the costume that Lincoln wore: his suit and his vest and jacket. And he had that man walk around in the woods so that it gave a realism to the monument. So many monuments are stilted⎯and Saint-Gaudens was able to capture that realism by having all the wrinkles and all the elements that you would have with a living person.”
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1848. The son of a shoemaker, Saint-Gaudens moved with his family to New York before he was one. Growing up in the city, he became interested in art, and after turning thirteen he left school to apprentice with a cameo cutter. While an apprentice, Saint-Gaudens took classes at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. When he was nineteen he moved to Europe, where he continued his studies in both Paris and Rome. Studying classical art and architecture, Saint-Gaudens began to work as a professional sculptor.
Returning to America, Saint-Gaudens received his first major commission in New York City. Still considered one of his important works, “Admiral Farragut” (1881) stands in New York’s Madison Square Park. Combining the technical proficiency learned in Europe with a free and flowing hand, Saint-Gaudens created bronze statues that represented the complexity and grandeur of the American heroes he portrayed. Saint-Gaudens was a master of the human form, perfectly representing the physical while bringing to life the personality of his subjects.
By the late 1880s and 1890s, Saint-Gaudens had produced some of his greatest work including a copper statue of Diana and the first of his bronze monuments to President Abraham Lincoln. He had also become part of a group of rising artists and architects including H.H. Richardson, Stanford White, Charles McKim and John La Farge. Working with the McKim, Mead, and White architectural firm he produced a significant body of monuments and decorative sculpture. Throughout his career, he would continue to work closely with architects, creating most of his work specifically for the sites.
Throughout the 1890s Saint-Gaudens continued to work while engaging in the greater art world through teaching and advocacy. Often taking on many private students at once, Saint-Gaudens also taught at the Art Students League of New York, and worked in support of the American Academy in Rome. During these busy times, however, Saint-Gaudens continued to work diligently on a number of projects, many of which took him upwards of ten years or more to complete. His bronze statue of General Sherman led by Victory, which stands at the entrance to New York’s Central Park took eleven years. Probably the most famous of this time however, was the sculpture of a bent and draped figure deep in thought and grief in the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C. This sculpture uniquely brings together the monumental and the personal for which Saint-Gaudens’ work has become known.
By 1900, Saint-Gaudens moved to his summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire. Joined by other artists including Maxfield Parrish, Thomas Dewing, and his brother, the sculptor Louis Saint-Gaudens created a community of artists there that supported and inspired him throughout his final years. On August 3, 1907, Saint-Gaudens died. Today, nearly one hundred years later, the technical grace and subtle beauty of his work remains an inspiration to artists everywhere.