Today in 1848, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland. His sculptures would help define the American Renaissance, that period of time between the mid-1870’s and the beginning of the First World War marked by a renewed national spirit. Although no longer a household name, his works are viewed every day in the cities of this nation.
Saint-Gaudens was brought to the United States by his parents when he was six months old. He was raised in New York, where he took art classes and worked as an apprentice until the age of 19. From there, he went to Paris, then Rome to continue his studies in art and architecture. His future wife, Augusta Homer, was also an American art student studying in Rome. The two were married in 1877.
Once again in New York, Saint-Gaudens soon found himself amongst the top tier of writers and artists during the Gilded Age. His first large commission, a monument to Admiral David Farragut to be placed in New York City’s Madison Square, came in 1876. The sculpture and the architectural background for it took five years to build and when it was unveiled to the public in 1881, it was a critical success. Augustus Saint-Gaudens had arrived in a big way.
With his reputation firmly enhanced, Saint-Gaudens soon found himself with a steady stream of commissions, almost all of which can still be seen today. There is the ‘Standing Lincoln’ sculpture in Lincoln Park, Chicago, and a sculpture of General John Logan in the same city. General William Tecumseh Sherman can still be seen at a corner of Central Park in New York City. Many of his works required an architectural background. Most of these were created by his friend Stanford White, an architect of great renown. Many of White’s achievements in the field, like Saint-Gaudens’, can still be seen today in homes and buildings in the New York area.
Saint-Gaudens had a strong interest in the artwork found on coins, so much so that President Theodore Roosevelt chose him in 1907 to the redesign the $20 gold piece then in circulation. The resulting coin, called the double eagle, is considered by numismatists to be the most beautiful US coin ever minted. The design was flattened for use by the mint, but even so it took eleven imprints, or strikes, for all the details to show on the coins. Because of this, fewer than 13,000 of the first year’s run were minted. These 1907 coins are highly sought after by collectors to this day.
Saint-Gaudens spent some of his time as an art teacher, instructing both publicly and privately. He served as an artistic advisor to the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, a sort of “coming out” party for the United States as a world power. His schedule was reduced after 1900, however; that was the year Saint-Gaudens was diagnosed with cancer. He and his family moved to their summer home in New Hampshire, but Saint-Gaudens refused to retire. In addition to his work for the US Mint, he continued to work on sculptures in his barn studio. In 1904, he was among the first seven people chosen for induction into the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
During the summer months, painters, sculptures and architects would converge on Cornish, New Hampshire, the site of Saint-Gaudens’ summer home. Those who made the yearly journey to be around the great man and each other began to refer to their gathering as the “Cornish Colony”. After August, 1907, the month and year of Saint-Gaudens’ death, the group began to fall apart.
Saint-Gaudens’ many works can be seen not only in public parks, but in dozens of museums worldwide.