Born in Ireland to a French shoemaker and his Irish wife, Saint-Gaudens grew up in New York City where his parents had immigrated when he was a baby. He was apprenticed to a cameo cutter at age 13 and soon thereafter attended art classes and later studied in Paris and then Rome. He received his first major commission at age 28.
He is best known perhaps for his large public monuments, the Sherman Monument in New York’s Central Park, the “Standing Lincoln” in Chicago, and the Shaw Memorial honoring the 54th Massachusetts regiment on the Boston Common. Yet, he also excelled at miniature masterpieces, such as commemorative medals and coins.
Exploring the grounds is a delightful adventure with sculpture around every corner — the Shaw Memorial, a recast of the Adams Memorial, the well-known bronze funerary sculpture commissioned by historian Henry Adams for his wife Clover and located in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., and the Farragut Monument. An indoor exhibit space holds a stunning collection of his miniature works – portrait reliefs, designs for U.S. gold coinage, medals and cameos.
The grounds hint at a life well-lived. Down an idyllic woodland trail you find the swimming hole, built by Saint-Gaudens himself. The bowling green, flower garden, and his little studio has a pergola with Doric columns, designed by the artist and inspired by a trip to Italy. Then there’s the house, built around 1800 as an inn and tranformed into an artist’s comfortable home and filled with items purchased from his travels.
Set in the shadow of Mt. Ascutney, the property is surrounded by woods and streams and it’s easy to see why the scenery inspired him and other artists who followed, forming the Cornish Colony.
I’m glad that the National Park Service includes sites such as this among its collection of historic sites. History goes well beyond politics and military clashes and sometimes cultural history gets lost. While sites such as the St. Louis Arch and Mount Rushmore preserve grand artistic endeavors, it is important to teach about the artistic fabric of the nation on a smaller, more personal scale. Sure, most Americans may not be familiar with the name Saint-Gaudens, but they are probably familiar with his work.
Fun fact from the NPS website: Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the first sculptor to design an American coin. The $20 gold piece he designed in 1907 at the request of Theodore Roosevelt is considered this country’s most beautiful coin and is called a “Saint-Gaudens” by coin collectors.
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