New Hampshire: Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The site honors the achievements of America’s most celebrated sculptor and coin designer. It is the place where Augustus Saint-Gaudens planned and prepared much of the work that established his reputation. The park includes a studio, a gallery displaying his 1907 coin designs, and other exhibits reflecting the sculptor’s work and life.

Site Office

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site

Rural Route 3

P.O. Box 73

Cornish, NH 03745

ph.: (603) 675-2175

fax: (603) 675-2701

Web site: www.sgnhs.org

Augustus Saint-Gaudens is recognized as America’s most successful and one of its most prolific sculptors. There are some who compare him to the renowned French sculptor, Auguste Rodin. For more than sixty years after his death on August 3, 1907, Saint-Gaudens was largely forgotten or dismissed by American art critics, but in 1969, a National Portrait Gallery exhibit of his bas-reliefs began a reappraisal of the artist and created a new interest in his work.

Early Life and Training

Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland, on March 1, 1848. His father, Bernard Saint-Gaudens, was a French shoemaker who moved to Dublin in the mid-1840’s and married Mary McGuinness, Augustus’s mother. To escape the Irish famine of the late 1840’s, the family immigrated to New York City in September, 1848.

As a young boy, Augustus showed artistic interest and talent, and at age thirteen he was apprenticed to a cameo cutter and also attended art classes at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design in New York City. Six years later, he went to Paris to study under a prominent sculptor, Francois Jouffry. After three years in Paris, Saint-Gaudens moved to Rome where, for five years, he studied classical architecture. It was in Rome that he received his first minor commissions. In 1877, Saint-Gaudens married Augusta Homer, an American art student he had met in Italy.

In 1876, a year before his marriage, Saint-Gaudens earned his first major commission, a monument to Civil War hero Admiral David Glasgow Farragut. When the Farragut Monument was unveiled in Madison Square, New York City, in 1881, there was resounding critical acclaim. Art critics praised the way in which Saint-Gaudens blended allegory and realism. The positive reaction heralded a distinguished career.

New Hampshire Residence

The 1881 Farragut Monument led to a stream of commissions for Saint-Gaudens and, as his career advanced, he established a summer residence in Cornish, New Hampshire, in 1885. He first rented and then purchased a house that he named Aspet after the town in which his father was born. Aspet became his permanent residence from 1900 until his death in 1907.

On the land around Aspet, Saint-Gaudens built several studios where many of his sculptures were created. He had one large studio, carved out of an old hay barn, to accommodate the work of the assistants he brought to Cornish. The work in Cornish consisted principally of modeling and plaster casting. The plaster casts were then sent by train to foundries in New York. Saint-Gaudens’s many assistants prepared the casts according to his instructions. The master himself visited Cornish only periodically until 1900. He spent much of his time teaching regularly in New York and giving advice on such major undertakings as the Columbian Exposition of 1893 and the preservation of Washington, D.C., architecture. Interspersed with this activity there were frequent trips to Europe for “artistic renewal.”

Artistic Community

From 1890 through 1907, Cornish, New Hampshire, was one of the most active artistic communities in North America. Many of the most famous artists of the era followed Saint-Gaudens to Cornish. Among the numbers were architect Charles Platt, dramatist Percy MacKaye, sculptors Paul Manship and Louis Saint-Gaudens (Augustus’s brother), and painters Deforest Brush and Kenyon Cox. In the center of this vibrant assembly stood Saint-Gaudens, who was always viewed as the reason the community existed. By the early 1890’s, the commissions that Saint-Gaudens received for memorial sculptures had made him an industry upon which the economy of Cornish depended. In 1905, to honor Saint-Gaudens, the art colony produced a play, A Masque of Ours, whose set included a temple. The temple was later re-created in marble and is at the Saint-Gaudens burial site.

With Saint-Gaudens’s death in 1907, the other artists soon began to leave Cornish. It once again became an isolated village with few permanent residents.

The Work

Although his 1907 gold coin designs and his many smaller works are exquisite, Saint-Gaudens is best known for his major monument sculptures. Scattered across the United States as well as Ireland and Scotland, these bronze memorials stand as the most obvious testimony to his brilliance. All his works are arresting for their detail and graceful lines. Critics disagree about which are the best of his memorials, but among those most often cited are Lincoln: The Standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago; the Memorial to Mrs. Henry Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.; and The Colonel Robert Gould Shaw Memorial in Boston Commons. The Shaw monument required fourteen years to complete and is frequently referred to as Saint-Gaudens’s “Symphony in Bronze.” While largely unfamiliar to Americans, Saint-Gaudens’s Memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson in Edinburgh and his monument in honor of Irish hero Charles S. Parnell in Dublin, Ireland, are also considered to be superior efforts.

There are some critics who complain that Saint-Gaudens tried to do too much, or that he relied to an excessive degree on his assistants. The consensus, however, is that Saint-Gaudens was not only the first true American sculptor, but that his work places him in the upper echelon of artists regardless of time or place.

For Further Information
  • Dryfhout, John. The Works of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1982. Essential reading for those with a serious interest in Saint-Gaudens’s work.
  • Hureaux, Alain Daguerre, ed. Augustus Saint-Gaudens, 1848-1907: A Master of American Sculpture. New York: Somogy Editions D’Art, 1999. Color catalog of Saint-Gaudens’s work featuring two 1999 European exhibitions. Includes eleven essays by art scholars.
  • Saint-Gaudens, Homer, ed. Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. 2 vols. Reprint. New York: Garland, 1969. Edited by Augustus’s son, these reminiscences are sometimes interesting but not very enlightening.
  • Taft, Lorado. The History of American Sculpture. Reprint. New York: Arno Press, 1969. Suggests that American sculpture really began with Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
  • Tharp, Louise Hall. Saint-Gaudens and the Gilded Era. Boston: Little, Brown, 1969. Puts Saint-Gaudens in the context of late nineteenth century American culture.
  • Wilkinson, Burke. The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens. San Diego: Harcourt, 1985. A highly readable account of Saint-Gaudens’s life that tries to correct some misconceptions.
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