Since the end of the 18th century, America has produced any number of competent sculptors, even a few first-rate ones, but perhaps only two that brought authentic greatness to their own genres: David Smith and Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Smith's work was the climax of a tradition of open, sheet-metal sculpture that began in 1912 with Picasso's tin guitar; Saint-Gaudens, at the end of the 19th century, epitomized the academic tradition of public speech through bronze casting, whose roots wound back to Donatello and Verrocchio.
The idea that one was as good as the other would have seemed macaronic 20 years ago, when Saint-Gaudens' name was ignored by everyone except a few elderly loyalists and some young art historians with a revisionist glint in their eyes. He had been dropped from the list, an act comparable to (though, happily, not as final as) the dismantling of that masterpiece of New York public architecture, McKim, Mead and White's Pennsylvania Station. However, work did survive, though unconsulted. Few visits were paid to his Shaw monument on Boston Common, the most intensely felt image of military commemoration ever made by an American; few Manhattanites bestowed more than a glance at his monuments to Admiral Farragut and General Sherman. Curators who, given the ticket, would cross the Atlantic to admire some steatopygous bauble by Niki de Saint-Phalle would hardly have crossed the street to see an Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Even today his rehabilitation is incomplete. Sculpture provokes fewer fantasies than painting; not everyone is willing to give Saint-Gaudens the place accorded, as a matter of course, to Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Eakins or Winslow Homer. Hence the interest of the current exhibition "Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Master Sculptor," organized by Art Historian Kathryn Greenthal for New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Between his professional flowering in the 1880s and his death in 1907, Saint-Gaudens was seen as proof that America could produce art--an ability that, his patrons felt, went hand in hand with the triumph of the industrial Northeast after the Civil War. He gave the crude, grabbing Republic its lessons in symbolic deportment and visual elocution, and won its unstinted gratitude. If there was such a thing as the American Renaissance, then Saint-Gaudens embodied it in sculpture, as surely as the Roeblings did in engineering, Louis Comfort Tiffany in décor or McKim, Mead and White in architecture. Today portrait sculpture is dead, and the photo opportunity reigns. But Saint-Gaudens lived in an age when sculpture was thought the supreme mode of official commemoration, and the types he created are still very much with us. Our iconic sense of Abraham Lincoln as statesman, seamed, grave and erect, was created as much by Saint-Gaudens' bronzes as by Mathew Brady's photos. Our image of the repressive, striding Puritan with Bible, cloak and conical hat owes much of its existence to the rhetoric of Saint-Gaudens' monument to Deacon Samuel Chapin in Springfield, Mass. His only nude female figure, the gilded sheet-copper Diana that he made as a weathervane figure for the top of Stanford White's original Madison Square Garden in 1891, slender as any mannerist charmer from Fontainebleau, became in a literal way the Golden Girl of the '90s in New York, as definitive a pinup as the Gibson Girl.