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The New York of Augustus Saint-Gaudens

As we're celebrating all things Irish on St. Patrick's Day, it's time to take note of the contributions of Irish-Americans to New York City's culture. While the list is long, here's an artist of note. While walking along 2nd Avenue between E. 19th and E. 20th Streets be sure to check out the fancy gate on the east side of the avenue. The playground is named after the Irish-American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), the Gilded Age creator of the Admiral Farragut Monument in Madison Square Park, the golden Sherman monument in Grand Army Plaza, and the Peter Cooper Monument in Cooper Square. His well-crafted works are known for their balance between realism and a heightened emotional expression.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens playground. 2nd Avenue.

Born in Dublin to an Irish mother and French father (hence the last name), Augustus was raised in New York City after his family immigrated. He was just a baby. The growing adolescent showed great skill in the arts, apprenticing to a cameo cutter while taking classes at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. Like many artists of his day, he left for Paris to study at the École des Beaux-Arts. When he returned to New York he met with great success, often working with established architects like Stanford White. His most moving work is in the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. - the Adams Memorial, commissioned by writer Henry Adams as a memorial to his wife, Clover.

The life and work of Saint-Gaudens in New York should be appreciated in relationship to other prominent artists and architects in the city. He was personally and professionally close to the architects Stanford White and Charles McKim and painter John La Farge and often collaborated with them. He was also personal friends with painters Winslow Homer and William Merritt Chase. The mutual friendships contributed to a flowering of the arts in New York City in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a time of monumental building projects and civic ambitions. A dignified man with steady emotions, a polite demeanor, and strong artistic focus, Saint-Gaudens was the most celebrated American sculptor of his day.

Many New York visitors would be familiar with the final work of Saint-Gaudens - the Sherman monument in Grand Army Plaza. Following the death of William Tecumseh Sherman in New York City in 1891, the City's Chamber of Commerce commissioned the work. Saint-Gaudens already knew Sherman, as the Civil War general had previously sat for the artist in 1888. The artist greatly admired Sherman and spent a great deal of time in his two studios, one in Paris and the other in his beloved home in Cornish, New Hampshire working on the statue. The work took a toll on his health, and it was not unveiled until Memorial Day in 1903. The artist managed to attend the ceremony.

The allegorical woman figure leading William Tecumseh "War is hell" Sherman stands as a symbol for peace. As with many of his female figures, she was modeled after Saint-Gaudens's mistress. The original gold leaf had flaked off through the years, and the monument was restored in 1989. Source: The New York Parks page on the monument.

Sherman Monument in Grand Army Plaza by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. 59th St. and Fifth Avenue. 
Image from April 17, 2009.
From Walking Off the Big Apple

Saint-Gaudens contributed a lasting work to the city of his birth, Dublin. On the north end of O'Connell Street, the city's own Broadway, the tall obelisk of the Parnell Monument, unveiled in 1911 after the sculptor's death, is dedicated to the Irish nationalist leader Charles Stewart Parnell (1846-1891). Collaborating with architects Henry Bacon of McKim, Meade, and White, and Irish architect George Sheridan, the monument features the figure of the leader, his arm outstretched, at the base. Above him is etched a golden lyre, the national symbol. Next to it are the words from a speech by Parnell to his fellow countrymen:

“No man shall have the right to fix the boundary to the march of a nation.
No man has a right to say to his country Thus far shalt thou go, and no further.
We have never attempted to fix the ne plus ultra to the progress of Ireland's nationhood, 
and we never shall."

Images by Walking Off the Big Apple, from the archives.

The Metropolitan Museum of art has several important works by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907). See their Thematic Essay | Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History | The Metropolitan Museum of Art.





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