“Gold horse, gold rider, gold goddess”

The Irish Times on Thursday had another fascinating feature article [subs req] on a link between Ireland and some of the United States’ best known public buildings and monuments – see this previous post on the White House. This time the focus is on the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens, born on March 1st, 1848 in Dublin of a French father, Bernard Saint-Gaudens a shoemaker from the village of Aspet in the Pyrennees, and an Irish mother, Mary McGuinness from County Longford. The family left Dublin when he was just 6 months old and settled, via Boston, in New York. In 1884 he was commissioned by a wealthy Boston family to produce a sculpture in honour of their son, Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry he led. The commission took 14 years to complete and resulted in the bronze relief Shaw Memorial. Saint-Gaudens’ home, named Aspet, in Cornish, New Hampshire is a national historic landmark in the US. Augustus Saint-Gaudens died 100 years ago on 3rd August 1907.From the Irish Times article [subs req]

The Shaw memorial honoured a much loved son and an American hero, Robert Shaw, the Harvard boy. But it was the first time an American sculptor had been commissioned to represent blacks as heroes, sharing the nobility and resolve of their white leader. It was also the first American monument to a group rather than an individual. Saint-Gaudens hit on an inspirational form – he had one hero on horseback and the others followed on foot, in a procession taking the shape of a classical frieze.

“Gold horse, gold rider, gold goddess,” writes art critic Robert Hughes in his exhilarating study of US art, American Visions (1997), “High on a plinth, they stand at the south-east edge of Central park in New York, just in from the creeping traffic of Fifth Avenue and Fifty-Ninth Street.

“Together, they commemorate the crushing of the Confederacy by the Union, in the Civil War . . . It represents General William Tecumseh Sherman on his horse, leading the Union troops through Georgia . . . The horse is trampling on pine fronds and cones, symbols of Georgia. Superbly modelled, it advances with the remorseless animal power of Saint-Gaudens’ 15th century Renaissance prototypes . . . Ahead of it walks Nike, the goddess of victory, holding up a palm . . . Not a smile, or even an expression of triumph: a grimace, almost . . . Her face, bare as a hand, is as strange and ambiguous as the closed warrior face of Sherman above . . . She is an implacable and angry Victory, a terror to the losers, not a congratulation to the winners.”

Saint-Gaudens elevated US public sculpture from the mediocre to the sublime by drawing on the formal and conceptual energies of the Italian Renaissance. No less than five of America’s finest monuments – and this in a country slow to erect memorials – are by him. Who was he? The Dublin-born son of a French shoemaker, who was to leave Ireland with his wife when the future artist was only six months old.

Having experienced the New York public-school system, Augustus, at 13 and considered talented, was apprenticed to the cameo-cutter Louis Avet, who was French and knew his father. Three years later he moved on to work for another cameo cutter, Jules Le Brethon. In 1867 Saint-Gaudens set off for Paris with the support of his proud parents to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. He did well in Paris, helped by his fluent French and his enthusiasm. There he met John Singer Sargent and a lasting friendship was formed. They exchanged works and Saint-Gaudens made a bronze medallion of the head of 24-year-old Singer Sargent. The École training, with its emphasis on modelling, anatomy and design as well as an awareness of historical examples, made Saint-Gaudens an artist. Paris taught him to see, while his study of French and Italian Renaissance art helped him develop a concept of beauty and of the ideal. The influence of John Ruskin also proved vital.

THE OUTBREAK OF THE Franco-Prussian War in 1870 cut short his student days in Paris. Many of his class mates enlisted in the French army. Saint-Gaudens, however, moved to Rome and became an independent sculptor. By then he was already well experienced at bas-relief and had executed many works in this genre, as well as bronze and plaster busts and heads. In time, his output included portraits as well as themed commissions. He was in demand by many American tourists in Rome interested in plaster and bronze portraits and plaques. In 1871 he returned to New York and completed a commission for the Masonic Temple.

The following year he began teaching cameo cutting to his younger brother, Louis, who would in time work with him. The brothers returned to Rome where Saint-Gaudens met his future wife, Augusta Homer. They married in June 1877. Their only child, Homer, was born on September 29th, 1880.

Aside from his major war memorials in New York, Boston and Chicago, Saint-Gaudens is also famous for works such as: the plaster bas-relief of Mildred and William Dean Howells, in which the novelist and his daughter appear to be deep in conversation; the Whistler Memorial; and, as many US school children would immediately identify, The Puritan, the large bronze of a founding father which stands in Springfield, Massachusetts and was later reworked for the city of Philadelphia, as The Pilgrim. Serialisations of editions of his bas-reliefs, begun with his Robert Louis Stevenson – one of which is in the Hugh Lane gallery – were popular.

Other examples of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ sculptures are here

Including this one of Charles Stewart Parnell in O’Connell Square

And the artist himself…

Augustus Saint-Gaudens

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  • Katinka

    The illustration at the head of the article is of Colonel Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Infantry but it is not clear where this memorial is situated. This was a coloured regiment, and the illustration is of the memorial to Shaw and his regiment to be found on Boston Common. When i saw it there was a wreath of (real) flowers on the pommel of Shaw’s saddle.

  • Rory

    Fascinating link, Pete. I knew I had seen a representation of this sculpture before and of course memory jogged and I recall it was the closing image of the film Glory which recreates the story of Shaw and the 54th Massachussets and which first brought Denzil Washington to world attention.

  • Pete Baker

    Another great film, Rory.

  • Eddie

    Keeping in mind the theme of US buildings influenced by the Irish, does anyone know of any good web sites or books about St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in San Francisco. Was recently in SF and visited and and was amazed. Church was built in 1851 by Irish immigrants and rebuilt in early 1900s after the big earthquake. What makes it unlike any other church I have ever been in is that the stained glass on the side walls are images of saints for all 32 counties of Ireland. Each window has a 20 foot high picture of the saint with the county name at the top and the saint’s name at the bottom. For example, Clare has St. Senan and Cork has St. Finbar. High above the church in the rafter area are smaller stained glass windows. I could not see them that well but the parish priest told me they all depict images of Irish mythology. I would love to see some pictures of these but so far I have found nothing. Anyone out there have any info on this incredible church?

  • Thomas from Texas

    Fitting that it commemorated those who died in the struggle to unite a divided country that was reunited in the end. Perhaps another will be created someday for Ireland.

  • Wilde Rover

    It’s pretty impressive, but I don’t get the floating gold goddess bit. Who’s she supposed to be when she’s at home?