Peter Cooper, by Augustus Saint Gaudens

This essay is adapted from Chapter 10 of Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide. I’ve kept cross-references to other chapters in the book, all of which will eventually be updated and posted on this site. Click on “Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan book” in the Obsessions cloud at lower right to see which are already here.

Augustus Saint Gaudens, Peter Cooper, 1894. At Cooper Union, New York. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante
  • Sculptor: Augustus Saint Gaudens. Pedestal: Stanford White.
  • Dedicated: 1894.
  • Medium and size: Overall 20 feet; bronze figure (approximately 6 feet), granite pedestal and canopy, pink marble columns.
  • Location: Cooper Square south of the Cooper Union, where the Bowery splits into Third and Fourth Avenues. Subway: 6 to Astor Place.

About the sculpture

Drawl, “Go ahead, make my day,” and you summon the image of Dirty Harry, a cop who broke all the rules but always put the crooks out of action. Compare a colleague to Howard Roark and you evoke the intransigent independence of the Fountainhead’s hero. So strong are the associations of certain names and phrases that the mere mention of them calls to mind complete characters or situations. In sculpture, an artist can achieve the same result by “quoting” the pose or expression of a famous work of art.

Cooper has the lined face and full beard of an Old-Testament prophet—Michelangelo’s Moses and Donatello’s St. John the Evangelist come to mind. His seated pose recalls such prophets, as well as representations of medieval kings. The cane he holds evokes a king’s scepter.

This association with prophets and kings gives Cooper authority and grandeur. The same figure in the same chair, but in Greeley‘s casual pose (Chapter 7), would convey a very different character.

Augustus Saint Gaudens, Peter Cooper, 1894. John Quincy Adams Ward, Horace Greeley, 1890 (near City Hall, New York). Michelangelo, Moses, 1515 (San Pietro in Vincoli, Rome). Moses image: Jörg Bittner Unna / Wikipedia. Other two: Photos copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

Not only the pose but the setting make Cooper impressive. Saint Gaudens and architect Stanford White designed an elaborate granite-and-marble “frame” against which the bronze sculpture vividly stands out. The style of letters and numerals on the pedestal’s inscription evokes the grandeur and dignity of the Romans—a technique favored by neoclassical artists of the nineteenth century. (See Washington, Chapter 6.)

Augustus Saint Gaudens and Stanford White, Peter Cooper, 1894. At Cooper Union, New York. Photos copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

As the final touch, Cooper is placed so that as we approach, he’s set against his most enduring contribution to New York: the home of the Cooper Union. (See About the Subject, below.) “One does not ‘happen upon’ this statue of the great philanthropist,” wrote Lorado Taft in his History of American Sculpture; “one approaches it and is conscious of the approach.”

Cooper and the Cooper Union. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

Yet Cooper is not a forbidding, regal presence. Why? In portraits of medieval kings, the figures are rigidly symmetrical. Cooper is not—in fact, one foot is slightly in front of the other, as if he’s about to stand up. Kings are portrayed with lavish robes, crowns and scepters. Cooper wears the frock coat of a well-to-do nineteenth-century gentleman, and his cane is elegant but simple. End result: Cooper looks like Moses, if Moses were a Victorian-era grandfather.

Augustus Saint Gaudens, Peter Cooper, 1894. At Cooper Union, New York. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

And incidentally … cameras and caricaturists didn’t see Peter Cooper like this.

Photograph of Peter Cooper (d. 1883). Image: Wikipedia
Thomas Nast, caricature of Peter Cooper, ca. 1865. Image: Wikipedia

About the subject

As the Industrial Revolution gathered momentum in America during the early years of the nineteenth century, Peter Cooper (1791-1883) demonstrated the innovation and flexibility that made him one of the wealthiest businessmen of his time. In 1828 he was duped into purchasing a three-mile stretch of Baltimore waterfront. Struggling to compete commercially with Boston, Philadelphia and New York, the citizens of Baltimore planned to build a railroad to connect their harbor with Ohio, on the American frontier. Cooper’s land, rich in iron ore and at the terminus of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad (yes, the one on the Monopoly board), would be extremely valuable once the B&O was operating.

Horse-drawn carriage on rails, B&O Railroad, 1830.

Alas, the B&O was not. Designed for horse-drawn carriages, the tracks wound in tight curves through the rolling hills of Maryland. When George Stephenson introduced the steam locomotive in England in the late 1820s, the B&O wanted to purchase one for its own use, but Stephenson’s locomotive could not negotiate the curves laid down in Maryland. The engineers were stumped. The investors refused to provide more funds. By 1830 the B&O Railroad faced bankruptcy, and Cooper faced a precipitous drop in the value of his Baltimore property.

Cooper, an inveterate tinkerer, cobbled together a locomotive with a shorter wheelbase and smaller wheels than Stephenson’s model. The engine, later nicknamed “Tom Thumb,” first ran on the B&O’s convoluted tracks in 1830.

Replica of Cooper’s Tom Thumb. This image is part of the collection of historic photographs of Baltimore County, Maryland USA owned by the Baltimore County Public Library, Towson Maryland USA.

Cooper described the first run of the “Tom Thumb”:

After a great deal of trouble and difficulty in accomplishing the work, the stockholders came, and thirty-six men were taken into a car, and, with six men on the locomotive, which carried its own fuel and water, and having to go up hill eighteen feet to a mile, and turn all the short turns around the points of rocks, we succeeded in making the thirteen miles, on the first passage out, in one hour and twelve minutes; and we returned from Ellicott’s Mills to Baltimore in fifty-seven minutes.

This locomotive was built to demonstrate that cars could be drawn around short curves, beyond anything believed at that time to be possible. The success of this locomotive also answered the question of the possibility of building railroads in a country scarce of capital, and with immense stretches of very rough country to pass, in order to connect commercial centers, without the deep cuts, the tunneling, and leveling which short curves might avoid. My contrivance saved this road from bankruptcy. – Cooper, Sketch of the Early Days of Peter Cooper, 1877

Although it was so slow that it once lost a race to a horse, it was the first successful steam locomotive built in America. As Cooper pointed out, the “Tom Thumb” made the future development of railroads in the United States feasible by demonstrating that railroad tracks could be built over rough terrain without great expense.

Expansion of railroads in the United States

Railroads were crucial to America’s expansion. They moved passengers and freight rapidly and inexpensively across terrain where it was impossible to construct canals such as “Clinton’s Ditch” (Chapter 48). They lowered costs and spurred heavy industry and large-scale manufacturing. They spawned new methods of corporate financing. “No invention in history had so swift and decisive an effect upon the world economy as did the railroad,” asserts Gordon in The Great Game. “Indeed, it might almost be said that the railroad created the world economy out of a myriad of local ones.”

1876 map of railroads in the United States. Image: Wikipedia

The Cooper Union

Although Cooper’s successes and innovations ranged from the I-beam and the “Tom Thumb” to powdered gelatin (hello, Jell-o!), as a child Cooper only attended school for fifty-two days. He felt strongly that had he been better educated, he would have wasted less time trying to implement ideas that were physically impossible. So when Cooper was in his sixties, he established and endowed the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art.

Cooper and the Cooper Union. Photo copyright © 2018 Dianne L. Durante

The Union offered free evening courses to thousands of working-class New Yorkers. One of the Union’s earliest and most illustrious pupils (class of 1864) was Augustus Saint Gaudens, who studied drawing there while he worked as a cameo-cutter. Thirty years later, he sculpted this portrait of Peter Cooper.

The Cooper Union’s home was New York’s first fireproof building, and at seven stories its tallest. Its Great Hall was the scene of speeches by Ulysses S. Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass, as well the “Right Makes Might” speech (2/27/1860) that established Abraham Lincoln’s anti-slavery platform.

Abraham Lincoln at Cooper Union, 1860. Image: Cooper Union

New York Remembers Peter Cooper

From the New York Times, 1883:

Mr.Cooper lived to see the straggling unkempt City of New-York emerge from its chrysalis state to be the magnificent and overflowing Metropolis that it is to-day, gifted with innumerable inventions for the annihilation of time and space, built with enduring stone and iron upon unshakable foundations, stretching from the waters of the Bay of New-York to the pastures of Westchester, and sending its waves of population far into the remote hills of New-Jersey, Connecticut, and Long Island. To live to see all this was a life worth living. The memory and the example of Peter Cooper, the practical philanthropist, the best exponent of a man-loving, God-fearing, and utilitarian age, survive to inspire and bless unnumbered generations. –“A Practical Philanthropist,” New York Times 4/5/1883

New York Mayor Franklin Edson said,

A self-made man, Mr. Cooper thoroughly sympathized with those who began life with no other capital than industry and character. So soon as he had by energy and thrift gained a modest competence for his own modest requirements, he devoted his efforts to the single purpose of aiding his fellow men to obtain an honorable self-support through their own intelligent exertions. –“The City in Mourning. Tributes to the Memory of Peter Cooper,” New York Times 4/6/1883

At the dedication of this sculpture in 1897, the New York Times wrote:

The statue which was unveiled yesterday in the little park before the Cooper Institute is a noble monument to a noble man. No one in the history of New York has left a memory quite like that of Peter Cooper, one blended of such deep respect and such general and genuine affection. … The old-fashioned simplicity of his appearance and bearing, the quaint dignity of his large frame and his rugged but tranquil countenance, his unaffected pleasure in all the public meetings which to the last he was fond of attending, were impressive and winning. –“Peter Cooper,” New York Times 1897


  • Augustus Saint Gaudens (1848-1907) was born in Dublin and brought to New York City as an infant. He studied art at the Cooper Union, then in Paris. Saint Gaudens is arguably the greatest sculptor America has produced. Farragut, 1881 (Chapter 19), was his first major commission. Other significant works include the Puritan, 1886 (Springfield, Mass.: see here, here, and here for my analysis); the Standing Lincoln, 1887 (Chicago; see Chapter 15); the Adams Memorial, 1891 (Washington); and the Shaw Memorial, 1897 (Boston). Manhattan has Cooper, 1894, and Sherman, 1903 (Chapters 10 and 31). The Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing has several of his works, including Diana, 1894 (the weather vane from Madison Square Tower: more here). Staten Island has Richard Randall, 1884, at Snug Harbor, and Brooklyn has the David Stewart Memorial, 1883, in the Green-Wood Cemetery. At Theodore Roosevelt’s invitation, Saint Gaudens designed the famous “Walking Liberty” ten-dollar gold piece in 1906 (see Chapter 42, on Roosevelt).
  • I’ll be giving a 90-minute talk on Saint Gaudens and two other artist-entrepreneurs, Frederick MacMonnies and Maxfield Parrish, on July 7, 2018 at the Cordair Arts & Wine Weekend in Napa, California. More details here.
  • Outdoor Monuments has been “translated” into a fabulous app that you can enjoy on your phone or tablet for the images and music, even if you’re not in New York. The Guides Who Know Monuments of Manhattan videoguide is available for iPhone users (free Preview; complete app) and Android users (free previewcomplete app).
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