MANCHESTER, N.H. — “There is something extraordinarily irritating, when it is not ludicrous, in a bad statue,” wrote the sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens. “It is plastered up before the world to stick and stick for centuries while man and nations pass away.”
It was 1894, and members of the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial committee were rankled that the artist was taking too long. They had, after all, awarded him the commission in 1883. Busts referencing the monument and the initial contract are among the works in “The Sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens,” at the Currier Museum of Art through May 20.
“A poor picture goes into the garret, books are forgotten,” the sculptor continued, “but the bronze remains to accuse or shame the populace and perpetuate one of our various idiocies.”
He knew that public monuments are vessels for the public’s values, and that fickle time might swipe haloes from the heads of heroes. He would, perhaps, have foreseen a controversy over Confederate monuments. Lately, too, statues of men who led the slaughter and displacement of Native Americans are set to topple. Such works become artifacts, symbols of fear and entrenchment more than heroism.
Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) defined the American idiom of heroic memorial statuary: dynamic, not staid. Real, not ideal. Working in the decades after the Civil War, he depicted Union heroes. He was, as we shall see, a passionate admirer of Abraham Lincoln.
His greatest achievement was the Shaw Memorial, finally unveiled on Boston Common in 1897, depicting the young colonel on horseback, with his troops, the first African-American volunteer unit of the Union Army, at his side. A parade of veterans of that regiment marked the event. The first public monument to depict African-Americans, it has not lost its mournful, quietly declarative power.
The exhibition, mounted in collaboration with the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., where the sculptor lived and worked for many years, features several smaller versions of works, called reductions, which he crafted himself.
Pieces such as the busts of Shaw and his troops reinforce what a master of realism Saint-Gaudens was. He worked from family photographs to capture Shaw, who was 25 when he died in battle along with more than a quarter of his men. For the soldiers, he used live models, and cast some of the first known likenesses in bronze of African-Americans.
Proud and stalwart in his Union cap, each man is an individual. We can see their pride and burden etched in their faces. They are being seen, paid, and acknowledged by the government as men equal to any other. Perhaps they felt they must prove their worth.
The Shaw Memorial was and is more than a war memorial; it publicly monumentalized the humanity of black men.
Saint-Gaudens, the son of an Irish mother and a French father, grew up in New York and got his start carving and polishing cameos. As a boy, he saw President-elect Abraham Lincoln visit New York. After Lincoln’s assassination, he saw the great man lying in state, and then returned to the end of the line so he could see him again.
He trained in Paris, a rare American at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, and in Rome. His style evolved into a French-inflected realism that, upon his return to New York, blew away the stale air of America’s allegiance to neoclassical marbles. Even Saint-Gaudens’s allegorical figures, such as the Shaw Memorial’s angel carrying olive branches and poppies, symbols of peace and death, have a touch of grit.
On view here are square-jawed busts of Lincoln, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut (“Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”), and a grizzled General William Tecumseh Sherman. Saint-Gaudens exhibited a version of the Sherman monument he was crafting for New York’s Central Park at the 1900 Paris Exposition Universelle. Rodin is said to have doffed his hat.
“Standing Lincoln” is on view, not as big as the 11½-foot tall statue in Chicago, but towering nonetheless.
Saint-Gaudens was a brilliant public artist because he made heroes look human. Especially with the Shaw memorial, his realism made heroes of men who had been deemed less than ordinary.
Saint-Gaudens worked from life masks of Lincoln cast just after his nomination — his beardless face and both hands, one swollen from glad-handing supporters. He read the president’s speeches and writings.
Lincoln appears to have just risen from a chair behind him; one foot extends beyond the pedestal. In counterpoint to that dynamism, he grasps his lapel and gazes downward. Any moment, he will meet our eyes and speak. It feels personal. He will offer counsel.
The Civil War monuments here are the most peculiarly resonant with our current cultural moment, but there are other lovely works. His only female nude, “Diana,” was a beacon of modernity when architect Stanford White mounted it atop Madison Square Garden as the first illuminated public art in America. It could be seen from New Jersey.
I had been wondering if Saint-Gaudens, like some portraitists, erred on the side of attractiveness — the men he sculpted have such resolute jaws. But when President Theodore Roosevelt called upon the artist to produce coins “as good as that of the ancient Greeks,” the artist devised one with Roosevelt in profile, chin receding beneath his abundant mustache.
For the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 in Chicago, Saint-Gaudens designed a coin featuring Christopher Columbus striding purposefully onto new land, arms spread, gazing upward as if in divine conversation. Now Columbus is a divisive figure.
Saint-Gaudens was a brilliant public artist because he made heroes look human. Especially with the Shaw memorial, his realism made heroes of men who had been deemed less than ordinary. Choosing iconic subjects for posterity has always been a gamble. Most of the time, for Saint-Gaudens, it paid off.
Choosing heroic subjects for posterity has always been a gamble. Saint-Gaudens’s subjects have not been tarnished by time, partly because he was on the side of the victors, and partly because his monuments to the bold and the brave never lose sight of the humble.
THE SCULPTURE OF AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS
At Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester, N.H., through May 20. 603-669-6144, www.currier.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.