Sculptors of the American Renaissance
It was a golden age in American history, sometimes referred to as the “Gilded Age,” an age that witnessed a great industrial and scientific leap forward. At the same time, there was a vigorous cultural flowering in architecture, arts, crafts and industrial design. This relatively short span of fifty years, between the end of the American Civil War and the end of World War I, was exemplified by the City Beautiful Movement and the 1893 Columbian Exposition. Thousands of Beaux-Arts mansions and “cathedrals of commerce” were built, rivaling the beauty of European cathedrals and palaces. Monuments and memorials celebrated American achievement; public architecture challenged the classical gravitas of ancient Rome and Athens. Landscape architects such as Frederick Law Olmsted were re-inventing the public garden. It was a time when the ordinary traveler emerged from train stations that rivaled the Baths of Caracalla and American painters created landscapes infused with transcendent beauty. Even the humblest firehouse and municipal bath in New York City possessed architectural interest. Critics often point out the darker side of its unbridled capitalism and empire building, but if you thumb through the magnificent volumes of New York 1880: Architecture and Urbanism in the Gilded Age and New York 1900: Metropolitan Architecture and Urbanism 1890−1915, written by Robert A.M. Stern, Thomas Mellins, David Fishman, Gregory Gilmartin and John Massengale, you see photographs of thousands of beautiful structures that no longer exist, replaced by passionless glass-and-steel boxes. What has changed most in the last hundred years, what separates us most from that golden age is the loss of beauty and civility in the arts, particularly in public art. Lost are the deep moral and spiritual connections to a nation’s past, once provided in the form of public architecture, art, monuments and memorials.
For much of the twentieth century, the City Beautiful style was out of favor. The 1913 Armory Show and increasing waves of intellectuals and artists fleeing Europe in the 1920s and 1930s pushed American culture toward an avant-garde International Style, with the consequent destruction of thousands of Beaux-Arts and Gothic- and Renaissance-Revival architectural treasures. The wanton destruction of Penn sylvania Station in 1964 became a rallying point for a critical reassessment. In 1980, the Brooklyn Museum presented “The American Renaissance: 1876−1917,” a landmark exhibition curated by Richard Guy Wilson (now Dean of Architecture at the University of Virginia) and Dianne H. Pilgrim of the Brooklyn Museum.1 The Metropolitan Museum of Art opened an American Wing in 1985, making more American Renaissance art available to the public. In 2009, the Met’s newly renovated Charles Englehard Court reopened, providing unprecedented up-close access to many of its most renowned examples of sculpture, architectural elements and stained glass. The Met itself is one of the shining accomplishments of that golden age.
The new American Wing (art galleries are still under construction) contains the best of the Met’s permanent collection of nineteenth-century American sculpture and crafts, including works by America’s two greatest sculptors, Augustus Saint- Gaudens (1848−1907) and Daniel Chester French (1850−1931). Almost exactly a hundred years ago, the Met honored Saint-Gaudens with a monumental exhibition in its Hall of Sculpture (now the main lobby entrance). That honor was fiercely advanced by his greatest rival, Daniel Chester French, who was a member of the Board of Directors. French is best known for his monumental Lincoln on the National Mall; Saint-Gaudens is best known for the Shaw Memorial (1897) in Boston, the Diana which once topped the old Madison Square Garden and the General Sherman Monument (1903), both located in New York City. The two artists were contemporaries, born only eighteen months apart. Their paths crossed often; both maintained studios in Manhattan. Saint-Gaudens achieved public acclaim earlier with the Farragut Monument in Manhattan, begun when he had barely completed his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. French also wanted to study in Paris, but lacked the funds. Instead, he studied in Florence, at an atelier run by his mentor, Thomas Ball, a well-known neoclassical sculptor. Partly by temperament, certainly through training, Saint-Gaudens was more “modern” in style and subject matter than French, who remained the classicist.
Yet French and, to a certain extent, Saint-Gaudens have not received the individual attention they deserve. It is difficult to accept the prevailing indifference of scholars, particularly after viewing the perfection of the three masterpieces by French on view at the Met: The Angel of Death and the Sculptor (Milmore Memorial, 1892), Mourning Victory (Melvin Memorial, 1908) and Memory (1909, carved in marble 1919). The relocation of the marble Milmore Memorial and the Melvin Memorial, previously perched on the narrow mezzanine above the Englehard Court, now allows the visitor an opportunity to see these masterpieces for the first time as they were meant to be viewed by the artist, from three sides. These marble reliefs have such depth of field that their appearance changes as one moves from one side to the other, each angle carefully composed for the benefit of the eye, as in a sculpture by Michelangelo. French’s Lincoln (1922), on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., is well known, but there is shockingly little scholarship—biographies, monographs, catalogue raisonné—on this important sculptor. He is considered old-fashioned. The Met’s electronic database refers to his “worn-out neoclassical aesthetic.” French, despite his later studies in Paris, remained a Romantic classicist until his death in 1931, impervious to the tidal wave of modernism that swept everything away.
Saint-Gaudens retained more than a touch of French modernism because of his early training at the École des Beaux-Arts. Modernists as well as traditionalists were welcome visitors to his studio in Paris. Rodin was a good friend. Saint-Gaudens was one of the first Americans to embrace the new naturalism in sculpture, which would eventually evolve into full-blown modernism in the early twentieth century. In contrast to the purity of French’s formal aesthetic, Saint-Gaudens’s work, particularly his portraits and reliefs, employed a sketchy line, almost as if he were drawing with a stylus on bronze or marble. This is particularly evident in many of the low-relief portraits executed in bronze and marble in the Met’s collection. Saint-Gaudens was apprenticed to a cameo cutter when he was very young, an experience he regarded as torturous but which prepared him ably for his career. He made many preparatory drawings, taking years to finish his works. In contrast, French never made preliminary sketches. He began working directly in the clay, resolving formal issues and iconography in small modellos.
This is a major difference between works by French and those by Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gaudens’s approach, encouraged by the increasingly modern Parisian art scene of the post-Franco-Prussian War era, is realistic and naturalistic, intended to reveal the character of the sitter. Saint-Gaudens is sensitive to the material and process of sculpture-making, like Rodin, whose fingerprints are evident in the finished work. In contrast, French remained a true classicist, focused on the formal qualities of high art. However, as we will see in a discussion of the Adams Memorial, Saint-Gaudens could create works of such expressive power they transcend analysis of mere aesthetics and style, to achieve that rare quality of gravitas one notes in sacred Egyptian sculpture. When passionately aroused by a subject, Saint-Gaudens’s imagination soared. His Standing Lincoln (Chicago, 1884−87) is perhaps the most successful in capturing the spirit of the martyred president. Saint-Gaudens had acquired a cast of an 1860 life mask of Abraham Lincoln, taken by Leonard Wells Volk before Lincoln left Chicago for Washington.
Several works by other American sculptors in the Englehard Court date themselves by style or theme. French sought themes that are timeless in their appeal, such as death, mourning and memory. The Angel of Death and the Sculptor was commissioned by the grieving family of Boston sculptor Martin Milmore, who was only 39 when he died. French portrays him in the prime of life, chisel and mallet in hand, his knee resting against the ledge of a granite relief of Sphinx (1872), a Civil War memorial carved by young Milmore (Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge). The massive angel, her cloak falling in classical folds, partially shielding her face, stands eight feet high. Her wings lend a lovely yet dreaded somberness as she reaches out a gentle arm to stay the hand of the sculptor from his work. In her right hand, she carries a corsage of poppies, symbolizing eternal sleep. It is the most sorrowful, beautiful memorial on American soil. In 1926, the Metropolitan Museum acquired a marble copy of the original bronze. Although French’s Mourning Victory was prominently displayed in the inaugural catalogue for the American Wing (1985), the sculptor remains underappreciated. Is one of the most important artists in American history too closely associated with “beauty”? Not the cool impersonal beauty one might logically associate with works by American classicists such as Hiram Powers, Horatio Greenough, H.W. Ruckstuhl and French’s mentor, Thomas Ball, but a classicism infused with Romantic passion and robust talent. Wayne Craven writes in his seminal work on American sculpture: “French’s sculpture became the epitome, the final glorious outburst, of the representation of abstract concepts by personification…the heritage of a classical, Greco-Roman-inspired outlook on the life and experience of mankind.” 2 In short, French’s work represents the antithesis of everything modernism proposed. French was at the height of his career when the Armory Show of 1913 introduced the avant-garde sculpture of Constantin Brancusi, Wilhelm Lehmbruck, Marcel Duchamp, Paul Gauguin, Aristide Maillol and Pablo Picasso. He simply ignored it. All the formal “abstract” qualities of beauty were already incorporated in his work.
Saint-Gaudens is one of America’s first true modernists, in the best sense, which explains why he has remained more popular among historians and critics. The criteria of modernism apply to his innovative roughness and palpable handling of clay and bronze, to the intense psychological insights he brings to his busts of Abraham Lincoln (1887) and General William Tecumseh Sherman (1888); both were displayed in the Met’s small Saint-Gaudens retrospective (June 30−October 12, 2009). The viewer is always aware of the creative process displayed in Saint-Gaudens’s work, although he remained true to the iconography of his time, the heroic themes of victory and courage. In style, he pressed the boundaries of sculpture in new directions. However, the Adams Memorial is atypical of his work. The Saint-Gaudens retrospective included a number of fine bronze portraits: Robert Louis Stevenson (1888), Mrs. Stanford White (1884), Admiral David Glasgow Farragut (1880), John Singer Sargent (1880), Cornelius Vanderbilt I (1882), Charles F. McKim (1878), Jules Bastien-Lepage (1880), the great portrait of Lincoln and dozens of others in marble and bronze, busts and reliefs, including members of his own family.
But Saint-Gaudens’s memorial for the deceased wife of historian Henry Adams is unique. Mariann Clover Adams was a suicide. The question of how to commemorate a suicide, in an era when the act was widely considered a sin, presented a difficult challenge. Saint-Gaudens, who could be notoriously slow, working and reworking a design, took five years to invent a solution. Henry Adams had instructed the sculptor that he didn’t want the usual type of funerary piece, but was unable to explain what he did want. Stanford White would design the architectural setting. White was also designing Madison Square Garden (at Madison Avenue and 26th Street), with Saint-Gaudens’s famous Diana (1886−91) on its tower. Adams, who refused to see the memorial until completed, was overwhelmed. The sculptor had transcended style and iconography to produce a timeless memorial that emotionally moves visitors to the Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., even today. Saint-Gaudens had experimented with several images and forms, until he arrived at an abstraction so simple, so universal in its formal language, it is timeless. Ambassador John Hay wrote: “The work is indescribably noble and imposing. It is to my mind Saint-Gaudens’s masterpiece. It is full of poetry and suggestion, infinite wisdom, a past with out beginning and a future without end, a repose after limitless experience, a peace to which nothing matters— all are embodied in this austere and beautiful face and form.” 3 Art historian Wayne Craven observed that the Adams Memorial “contained the seed of a new art that was the product of an intellectual and artistic genius; this art would have little rapport with the nonintellectual public.”4 Saint-Gaudens had discovered the essence of modernity, not by shouting inflammatory slogans or overthrowing the traditional values of the Academy, but by pressing beyond academic iconography to reveal its deepest meaning, just as the shape of the Parthenon captures the essence of classicism.
The figure of Mariann Adams has been simplified to an extreme that a modernist sculptor of the 1913 Armory Show could appreciate.While her face might have been fashioned by Lehmbruck or Brancusi, Saint-Gaudens was not aiming for simplification for mere aesthetic reasons, but for a spiritual one. There are obvious connections with French’s The Angel of Death and the Sculptor. Saint-Gaudens’s composition, however, unlike French’s, avoids classical refinement. Mere physical beauty would detract from the spiritual essence he was seeking. Modernist and classical labels cannot explain its uniqueness. Indeed, the Adams Memorial defies categorization. It has a soul, which speaks directly to the soul of the visitor. But not everyone’s soul can appreciate it. In The Spirit of American Sculpture (1923), art critic and historian Adeline Adams observed that the sculpture of French and Saint-Gaudens and the architecture of Charles McKim and Stanford White possessed “moral earnestness.”
The era between the Civil War and World War I witnessed an unparalleled explosion of art and architecture. Our great public buildings and train stations were built during this period. From the Brooklyn Bridge to Grand Central Station, it was a culture of energy and civility, distinguished by the high quality of workmanship, reverence, beauty and iconography. One of the last expressions of this golden age is the Lincoln Memorial, approved by Congress in 1910, as part of the McMillan plan. The architect, Henry Bacon, was inspired by ancient Greek temples. Its central hall, flanked by thirty-eight fluted Doric columns, contains the solitary nineteen-foot-high seated figure of Abraham Lincoln designed by French. French and Bacon collaborated on almost fifty projects, including the Melvin Memorial (1908) and the sculptor’s studio, Chesterwood, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. Bacon began his career at McKim, Mead and White, the firm which collaborated on many major projects with both Saint-Gaudens and French. He was a classical scholar as well as an architect and often traveled to Italy and Greece to study.
Bacon and French shared the same vision about the moral imperative of classicism. For them, the Parthenon was not only the most perfect aesthetic object in Western civilization, it was a moral exemplar. The Melvin Memorial, better known as Mourning Victory, on view next to The Angel of Death and the Sculptor in the American Wing at the Met, marks one of their best collaborations. In 1907, James Melvin commissioned French and Bacon to create a memorial for his three brothers, who had lost their lives in the Civil War. Instead of the usual iconography, they agreed that the ideal female figure of an angel would be more appropriate. French had known the Melvin brothers, and he poured his heart into the project’s unusual design. Perhaps more than any other work by French, it comes closest to capturing that elusive mysterious quality of the Adams Memorial by Saint-Gaudens. The figure of a grieving angel, wrapped in a shroud-like swirl, emerges partially from a tall prismatic block of white marble, holding aloft a laurel branch of victory. Bacon ranked the Melvin as the “best American war memorial, better than those of [Saint-Gaudens’s] Sherman, Farragut, and Shaw.”5 I think Bacon was right.
One of the least-known works by French, but the finest free-standing marble sculpture in the American Wing is Memory (1919).6 It is perhaps the closest French would come to creating a work that can be compared to a Michelangelo. An idealized seated nude woman reclines against a draped plinth, holding a small mirror in her outstretched arm. At first glance, it appears she is gazing at her own reflection, but the mirror is angled so that any reflection would be of an object behind her and to her left. The contemplative, melancholic expression on her face suggests a reverie, induced by some memory. The seated figure is twisted gracefully in contrapposto, so that the figure appears to undulate and evolve as one circles it 360 degrees, presenting perfectly composed compositions viewed from any angle. It is an American masterpiece, which returns us to the question of why French has been so long ignored by American scholars and perhaps even undervalued by the Met itself.
Too few Americans connect our present national crisis to the cultural dissolution which preceded it during the past fifty years. We are now moving past the dead end of postmodernism, which is marked by irony and disrespect for beauty and heritage, undermining the collective will. In his search for the right memorial for his deceased wife, Henry Adams left it to the artist to create the image he could not find the words to describe. In times of national crisis, leaders and the people turn to artists to find the common language needed to restore confidence in the order of things. In an era when art was at the heart of American civic life, French and Saint-Gaudens created great works that spoke to the nation. They offer an example of how to reconnect individual creativity with public expression.
1. The American Renaissance: 1876−1917, text by Richard Guy Wilson, Diane H. Pilgrim, Richard N. Murray (New York: Brooklyn Museum, 1979).
2. Wayne Craven, Sculpture in America (Newark: University of Delaware Press, 1984), p. 392.
3. Ibid., p. 386.
5. Christopher Alexander Thomas, The Lincoln Memorial and its Architect, Henry Bacon (1866−1924), Dissertation, Yale University, 1990.
6. Original cast in bronze, 1887.