Monuments and Myths title

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907) and Daniel Chester French (1850–1931) were the leading American sculptors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As friendly rivals, they transformed the nation’s sculpture in what was, for some, an age of massive economic growth fueled by booming steel and railroad industries, resulting in new forms of cultural patronage. With an aesthetic of remarkable formal elegance, they produced many of the nation’s best-known monuments, contributing to the creation of a national identity rooted in conceptions of liberty, grandeur, and common cause.

The narratives of a rising America conveyed by their works reflect only a partial vision of the nation, however. Dependent on commissions from those in political or cultural power, Saint-Gaudens and French often produced sculptures that told a privileged story—one that, whether intentionally or not, overlooked growing social inequities. Beyond their abilities to tell stories about our past, the works on view here have the potential for multiple interpretations in relation to contested histories, encouraging us to question the stories that public art tells and to explore what—and whose—histories remain hidden from view.

Drawn primarily from the collections of the artists’ historic homes and studios, Monuments and Myths is the first exhibition to bring together Saint-Gaudens and French in this way, probing their intersecting biographies and examining the affinities that made them leaders in their field. As we collectively refocus our attention on the role and meaning of historic monuments, it is a timely moment to ponder the continuing power of these artists’ sculpture and to examine how it has shaped—and continues to inform—our understanding of the United States.

In the Artist’s Studio

After pursuing artistic training in the United States and Europe in the 1860s and the first half of the 1870s, Saint-Gaudens and French returned home, where they developed thriving studio practices as they continued their careers. In addition to their urban workshops, both artists established studios in rural New England. In 1891, Saint-Gaudens purchased a property in Cornish, New Hampshire (seen in the photo mural across the room). Five years later, French, who had spent time at Saint-Gaudens’s country home, founded his retreat in Stockbridge, Massachusetts (seen in the photo mural nearby).

Saint-Gaudens and French were also influential teachers and sometimes trained students in their workshops. They often worked closely with other sculptors and architects on major commissions and regularly hired craftsmen skilled in the technical nuances of the sculptural process. Models and patrons were equally vital to their practice and were frequently present in these settings. With a vibrant mix of individuals and activities, their studios became dynamic spaces of labor, creativity, and exchange.

Sculpture for Civic Spaces

In the wake of the Civil War, the United States experienced a boom in monument-building as private patrons and civic groups aggressively commissioned public artworks. These projects, destined for the nation’s rapidly developing urban environments and memorial landscapes, aimed to influence and unify Americans with testaments to perceived national achievement and shared values. With aesthetics that fused modern naturalism and classically inspired solemness, Saint-Gaudens and French were particularly well suited to the needs of the time.

Working primarily in the Northeast and Midwest, Saint-Gaudens and French created dozens of sculptures commemorating an idealized vision of America’s colonial past, the memory of the Civil War, civic virtues, and private lives. They deftly fused memorialization with optimism, the real with the ideal, and suggested an America that could transform shared loss into the potential of the new age. The influential power of these works fulfilled the goals of the commissions, but they could also overshadow bleaker histories and visions of the future.

Society Portraits

From the beginning of their respective careers, Saint-Gaudens and French were highly sought-after portraitists. As innovators, they helped transform the genre from a more conservative tradition into one steeped in a kind of idealized naturalism. Working in bust formats as well as low relief panels, they created portraits that conveyed both the physical attributes and the character of their sitters.

For both the artists and their subjects, these projects helped facilitate career and social advancement. A portrait by Saint-Gaudens or French was a status symbol for a wealthy patron—the mark of a refined eye and a sign of inclusion within a network of important individuals. The artists were equally adept at leveraging these commissions; they skillfully took advantage of opportunities, gaining privileged standing within a class of national influencers whose tastes and concerns helped shape the cultural life of the country.

Modern Mourning

Between 1860 and 1920, Americans experienced the Civil War, World War I, and the influenza epidemic of 1918. The scale of human loss during those years was unfathomable and accelerated evolving attitudes about death. Saint-Gaudens and French responded to the call for new memorial sculpture by adapting the traditions of funerary art. Commissioned to create public sculpture for urban parks and town squares as well as prominent nineteenth-century cemeteries, they often departed from narrative tradition and straightforward religious iconography to evoke loss through beauty, mystery, and incomprehension. The two sculptors were vital in shaping the new attitudes toward grief and memorialization that were emerging in the United States.

Although Saint-Gaudens died prior to the start of World War I, French executed a series of memorials related to that conflict. These works, too, represent a new approach and convey an aesthetic of despair and a focus on shared sacrifice.

Lincoln and Civil War Memory

Many of America’s most recognizable and controversial monuments emerged from the nation’s complicated efforts to make sense of the Civil War. The memory of the conflict dominated the country’s collective consciousness in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and public sculpture served as a fertile ground for honoring the dead and cultivating tenuous bonds of national unity. Saint-Gaudens and French earned several of the most prestigious commissions for Union monuments, including those dedicated to Robert Gould Shaw and the Fifty-Fourth Massachusetts Regiment, Samuel Francis Du Pont, and, of course, Abraham Lincoln.

Killed far from the battlefield, Lincoln was the most prominent casualty of the war, and Saint-Gaudens and French each created two public monuments in his honor. Their portraits of the sixteenth president of the United States highlight his seriousness and humanity and have become central markers in America’s memorial landscape. Like many Civil War monuments, these portrayals present historical references that deserve further reflection today as we examine questions of national identity and who is memorialized.

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