The Sculpture of Augustus Saint Gaudens:
Its Meaning for Our Lives
by Chaim Koppelman
Early in my career as an artist I came to love Augustus Saint Gaudens, his sculpture and the man, and seeing the remarkable exhibition currently at the Parrish Art Museum, I was stirred again by his variety, his depth of perception.
Augustus Saint Gaudens
Saint Gaudens’ work ranged from the smallest, exquisite cameos to magnificent outdoor memorials. He did portraits in low relief, high relief and in the round, (the Robert Louis Stevenson relief is a well known example;) he was commissioned by the rich, and did loving portraits of intimate friends. He modeled in clay, cast in bronze, worked in plaster, carved in stone.
The meaning for our lives now, the relation of ethics and aesthetics in Saint Gaudens became even more urgent, clearer, through the principle I am enormously grateful to have learned from Eli Siegel the American poet, and founder of Aesthetic Realism: “All beauty,” Mr. Siegel stated, “is a making one of opposites and the making one of opposites is what we are going after in ourselves.” I will look mainly at two of his greatest public monuments, the Shaw and the Adams Memorials. Mural size color photographs of both bronzes are at the Parrish.
Lincoln Kirstein writes about the Shaw Memorial in his Lay this Laurel, the “exquisite justice of the placement of the mounted colonel... amidst the marching volunteers.” I see that justice as a masterful oneness of opposites: high and low, black and white, and crucially sameness and difference. In his historic broadside of 1955, “Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? Eli Siegel asks about “Sameness and Difference:”
These same opposites are the cause of great art, great pleasure and not seen as one, the cause of racism, ethnic injustice, and war.
Saint Gaudens deals with the conflict in war, and the ethics of a nation—ethics our country needs to learn from now—in the Shaw Memorial commemorating the first black regiment of the Civil War, and their white commander, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw. The movie Glory is about this regiment and the ethical struggle and beautiful change in Shaw from superiority and aloofness toward his men, to tremendous feeling and bravery, as he led them into battle and where he died alongside many of them.
Located on Boston Commons, St. Gaudens’ bronze relief sculpture, in a setting designed by architect Charles McKim, is eleven feet high by fourteen feet wide. With an angel above pointing the way and Shaw riding a horse, the group of men, portrayed almost life size, march proudly along, carrying their guns on their shoulders—not in behalf of cruelty but to fight the injustice of slavery. Unlike most heroic sculpture, this monument is placed close to the earth and walking by, you cannot help but become part of the march to justice. Saint Gaudens, visually, enlists us in the army of ethics. Your eyes cannot skim across this procession of sameness and difference; you go up and down with man and animal, white and black—all in bronze. Each face is given individuality.
Shaw Memorial - Detail
Their baggy uniforms, and the horse are weighty, substantial. But there is lightness too, even gaiety, in the spiky guns rising up. The drama of opposing diagonals—the forward moving legs of the men and horse and the backward thrust of the guns—work to move the men forward; and their faces are thoughtful as they go into battle.
Shaw Memorial - Detail
At the Parrish there are replicas of some of the 40 individual studies the artist did of men he saw on the street, and asked to pose as he prepared this work—they are in themselves great!
Robert Gould Shaw was not at first eager to head this regiment; he declined the offer. After pressure from his mother, an ardent abolitionist, and after some deep reflection, written about by Burke Wilkinson, whose biography, The Uncommon Clay I refer to, he accepted the commission.
Like Shaw, Saint Gaudens also struggled with his ethics even as he worked on this sculpture. Years later, he admitted that initially he took the commission for this monument, not out of deep feeling for the subject, but to make money and further his career. Like many people then and now, he was in a fight between selfishness and justice, coldness and feeling. When he showed his first sketch to Shaw’s parents they rejected it outright. Their son had died in battle among his men and it was unjust, they said, to present him as superior, as a “remote, equestrian hero.” He should be on the same level as his men.
The future sculptor as a young boy in New York, during the Civil War, had seen race riots and he could not forget them. His own father had also been an abolitionist. So this criticism must have affected him profoundly.” A kind of conversion or revelation came over him,” Lincoln Kirstein writes in his book Lay this Laurel He worked on this monument for more than 17 years with an intense desire to be fair to these men, their meaning and their individual courage. The dignity of every man is respected. A critic has told that when Rodin first saw the Shaw Memorial exhibited in Paris he “doffed his hat” in tribute to what he considered a great masterpiece.
A beautiful and necessary Aesthetic Realism question asked by Eli Siegel is this: “What does a person deserve by being alive?” It needs to be asked, discussed, and answered honestly by individuals and by public officials. The Civil War, and the fight against slavery is about what an individual deserves.
I believe that in a deep way Saint Gaudens felt he had to grapple with this question. Do we think other people have feelings as deep and complex as our own or want to feel we’re made of superior and better stuff?
“What does a person deserve by being alive?” is a vividly alive matter in domestic life as it is in national life.
One of the most important things I have learned as husband and artist is that there must be one way of seeing one’s work and one’s wife. Mr. Siegel goes to the center of the mistake most men make in his essay “Husbands and Poems:”
Augustus Saint Gaudens and Henry Adams, both married men, knew one another, but neither Henry Adans or Augustus Saint Gaudens gave the same respectful thought to knowing their wives they felt they owed their work.
The only thing that will satisfy not only the person being seen but the person seeing is the art way; it is described in these grand, kind, sentences by Mr. Siegel, in his essay “Art As Reality:”
The interest of Henry Adams in national and world affairs was phenomenal (“The Education of Henry Adams”). But like other men he wasn’t enough interested in the inner life of his wife Marian Hooper Adams, nor did he encourage her expression. Unfortunately this was also true for his old friend Saint Gaudens, who he commissioned to design a memorial for Marion Hooper Adams after she died, a suicide, in 1885.
I believe doing this memorial made for a deep self questioning. Saint Gaudens hadn’t encouraged his own wife’s desire to paint and soon after their marriage she stopped, had a son, Homer, and spent her time taking care of domestic affairs. He showed he felt bad in a letter he wrote in a letter to his sister in law:
Saint Gaudens worked on this figure for four years, and I believe thought very much about himself and his wife as he modelled and remodelled the forms before he could finally tell Henry Adams the memorial was done. Burke Wilkinson’s fine description in Uncommon Clay of the Adams memorial shows how much the oneness of opposites is central to the sculpture and its unforgettable effect even in photographs, since its unveiling at Rock Creek Cemetery in 1891.
Adams Memorial - Detail
Every person, in every country, is asking to be seen, to be known, to be respected as Aesthetic Realism describes, as “wholly real...having the drama of relation with all things;” that is the ethical message of all art, and of the sculpture of Augustus Saint Gaudens.
This talk was published in The Southampton Press, July 24, 2003
Burke Wilkinson: Uncommon Clay The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens,Harcourt Brace Jovanovich
The Shaw Memorial A Celebration of an American Master piece. Eastern National
Eli Siegel: Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites “Husbands and Poems,” and “Art As Reality,” Aesthetic Realism Foundation, & Definition Press
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