Sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens


By Victoria Chick, contemporary figurative artist and early 19th & 20th Century Print Collector


Artist Victoria Chick discusses one of the most prolific and revered American sculptors of the 19th and early 20th centuries, whose home, gardens and studios are preserved at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, New Hampshire, on Big Blend Radio.


Unless you have visited the Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic site you may not be aware of one of the most prolific and revered American sculptors of the 19th and early 20th centuries; a great artist who was not too proud to also design a one cent stamp and who accepted a commission to design a penny honoring President Lincoln.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens was brought to the United States, as a baby, by his immigrant parents. Although he died at the relatively young age of 59, he produced a prolific amount of sculpture in his lifetime. His career began at age 13 when he apprenticed himself for two years to a man who carved cameos, then apprenticed to another cameo carver for several more years while he also studied at the National Academy of Design. The attention to detail and the skill required for carving such small relief sculptures out of delicate, layered cameo materials such as agate and certain shells taught him patience and a desire for accuracy.

His world and his art expanded when he went to Paris in 1867 at age 19 to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. Classical design and copying Greek and Roman figure work were stressed at this school. It was a good fit for Saint-Gaudens experience with his cameo background. Except now he worked in different materials on larger projects.

In 1870 Saint-Gaudens went to Rome to study art and architecture. While there he met Augusta Homer, another American art student who he married in 1877. His wife was a distant cousin of artist Winslow Homer.

Saint-Gaudens specialized in portrait busts and did classical figures, but is best known for monumental public sculptures of statesmen and military heroes. His reputation for excellence began when he produced a sculpture of Civil War Admiral David Farragut whose bravery had been expressed by his famous attributed quote, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead”!  Saint-Gaudens began working on the Farragut Memorial while still in Paris. It took him seven years to complete the modeling and casting before the statue was unveiled in 1881 in New York’s Madison Square Park.  The Civil War produced numerous military heroes whose admirers wanted them honored with a statue, thus making Saint-Gaudens in great demand. In addition, Saint-Gaudens sculptures of President Abraham Lincoln are in numerous locations. His friend, the architect Stanford White, designed many of the pedestals and architectural surrounds for his sculptures.

Many people think his greatest work was one of his equestrian sculptures, a high relief bronze sculpture, the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial, depicting the abolitionist General Shaw with his command, the first company of all black soldiers, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.  Saint-Gaudens used photographs to be faithful to the features of Shaw but used a different live model for each soldier as it was his goal they all be seen as individuals. Overhead, in alignment with the marching group, is the depiction of an angel in classically modeled flowing garments, guiding them.

Around 1900, when Saint-Gaudens was diagnosed with cancer, he decided to spend most of his time at his artists’ compound in Cornish New Hampshire. Many artists gravitated to spend extended time in the compound’s creative atmosphere.

In 1904 President Theodore Roosevelt decided the gold coins, the “Eagle” 10.00 gold piece and the “Double Eagle” 20.00 gold piece needed to be redesigned. He was adamant the design should be done by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens thought of the coins as medallions and fashioned them in high-relief. They were struck by the mint but were not able to be stacked as coins needed to be because the relief was too high. Another series of coins with the same design in lower relief was attempted with limited success. Only a little over 12,000 of those coins were minted.  Finally, a very low relief coin was produced and continued to be minted until 1933 when the price of gold increased to $35.00 an ounce. As far as is known there is only one of these coins owned privately and it was sold in 2002 for over 7.5 million dollars.  Saint-Gaudens accepted the commission to design the one cent coin honoring Lincoln’s 100th Anniversary at the same time he was awarded the contract for designing the gold coins but passed away before he could complete the design of the penny coin.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens continued to work as the cancer weakened him. In the last year of his life he produced another statue of President Lincoln placed in Chicago’s Grant Park. Although Saint-Gaudens completed the design work and had begun casting the statue at the time of his death—his workshop completed it. The head of the statue was used as the model for the Lincoln portrait on the penny postage stamp issued commemorating the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.

Many people have admired sculptures designed and done by Saint-Gaudens as they have passed by them in parks, along boulevards, or attached to buildings. Most often viewers are focused not on Saint-Gaudins the sculptor, but on the persons who are memorialized in stone or bronze. I suspect Saint-Gaudens would approve.

More about the Augustus Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio. Visit her website at



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About the Author:

Victoria Chick is the founder of the Cow Trail Art Studio in southwest New Mexico. She received a B.A. in Art from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and awarded an M.F.A. in Painting from Kent State University in Ohio.

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