Nineteenth-century America was an explosively creative country. It opened up new territories to cultivation and poured forth a cornucopia of technical inventions. Its literature ranged from Hawthorne to Mark Twain, from Whitman to Stephen Foster, and its art included the architecture of McKim, Mead and White and the sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907).
Saint-Gaudens’s was an art at once outrageously, extravagantly American and defiantly classical. His masterpieces (like the Sherman monument in front of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan or the Diana that once stood on the pinnacle of the old Madison Square Garden) can hardly be understood without an appreciation of their classical roots. As Basil Gildersleeve told his Virginia audience in 1908, “I too would plead for an honest American literature, a literature of the soO, but the classics are in a measure our home, and Kipling quotes Horace as the burial service quotes a verse from a Greek comic poet. It is not a matter of blood, it is a matter of tradition.”
Saint-Gaudens wrote of himself, “I always thought I was a kind of cosmopolitan, gelatinous fish; pas du tout, I belong in America.” Saint-Gaudens is a good example of the American as a citizen of a United States of Europe. He studied in Paris and Rome, and was born of a French father and an Irish mother. His greatest works celebrated the Northern heroes of the Civil War: his Farragut and Sherman in New York, his standing Lincoln in Chicago. His monument to Robert Gould Shaw in the Boston Common gave us our most brilliant relief sculpture, as the traditions of the Arch of Titus return to life to honor the Boston aristocrat who led a black regiment in the war. Near the end of his life, Saint-Gaudens joined with Charles Follen McKim to found the American Academy in Rome, so that the traditions of the ancient world of art and scholarship would be preserved for future Americans.
Burke Wilkinson’s tribute is based on much research, and his book has much to say about the artist’s movements and emotions and even about his mistress. We get to know those great leaders of American art, Charles Follen McKim and Stanford White, and in Wilkinson’s retelling White’s shocking murder hits us as hard as it did Saint-Gaudens himself We see what Europe meant to an American of those days. When Saint-Gaudens returned to America to work on the Farragut monument, his first major commission, he “was so homesick for Rome that he left the faucet running in his studio washbasin to remind him of the tinkling fountain in the Barberini Gardens.” (I know the feeling.)
Sadly, the book’s weaknesses are many. The author does not write with distinction, his knowledge of history comes from textbooks, and he has little idea of the significance of the Classical past for Saint-Gaudens and his great contemporaries. Wilkinson is best on the wife, friends, and mistress. But to be just, when a more technical work on the artist is published it will owe much to Wilkinson’s dutiful collection of evidence. Saint-Gaudens’s work still speaks to us, or perhaps rather speaks to us again. I do not think anyone can understand Henry Adams unless he has confronted long and hard the mysterious Adams monument, sculpted to commemorate his wife (never mentioned in the Education) who committed suicide. Can we understand our own past until we stare into the faces of the winged Victory leading the wild-eyed Sherman? Saint-Gaudens, like Charles McKim and Basil Gildersleeve, tells us today that the barren spareness of the International Style and Hemingway’s prose are not the only options; that a truly American creativity can be built on the Classical traditions of our civilization. That empty feeling in the pit of our stomachs, which we have been taught to call anomie and alienation, is not a fatal cancer. We are just a little homesick for Rome.
[Uncommon Clay: The Life and Works of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, by Burke Wilkinson; San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich]
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