Sculpting the Sherman Monument
Augustus Saint Gaudens, recognized since his Farragut, 1880, as one of America’s most skilled and innovative sculptors, was already ill in 1891, when he accepted the commission for an equestrian sculpture of William Tecumseh Sherman (1820-1891). Saint Gaudens was the obvious choice for the project, since he was the only sculptor for whom the impatient Sherman willingly posed. “Look here, General! When you see portraits of Bismarck, Von Moltke and other great generals, their coats are always buttoned up tight to the throat, and they look their rank. Do just for a short time button yours up and set your tie straight so I can get it as it should be.” “I don’t give a tinker’s damn how men chose to wear their coats, but I want you to know that the General of the Army of the United States will wear his coat any damn way he pleases.”
Saint Gaudens’s concept for the Sherman Monument – a combination of down-to-earth, realistic soldier with a classical figure – could have gone very wrong. He spent a decade making it right. Given his illness, he relied on assistants to carry out much of the physical work. Here’s my favorite story about Saint Gaudens, as told in a biography written by his son Homer.
“I am going to invent a machine to make you all good sculptors” [said Saint Gaudens].
The stillness promptly became uneasy.
“It will have hooks for the back of your necks, and strong springs.”
The stillness grew even more uneasy.
“Every 30-seconds it will jerk you fifty feet away from your work, and hold you there for five minutes contemplation.”
Saint Gauden’s Sherman stands newly refurbished and pigeon-free at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. Grand, sweeping hat’s-off to the Central Park Conservancy, which keeps this and other sculptures in the park beautifully maintained. I have a 1970s book on outdoor sculpture in NYC that shows works covered with graffiti and pigeon poop: I am very appreciative!
The Mears Plaque
Given how much I love Saint Gaudens’s Sherman, you can imagine my delight when the most recent email from Conner-Rosenkranz, a New York gallery, had this image attached.
When Helen Farnsworth Mears (1872-1916) modeled this plaque in 1898, she was in Paris, working with Augustus Saint Gaudens on the Sherman Monument. The gilded relief, only 8.5 inches high, commemorates one of the greatest American sculptors and his last major work.
I’ve been on Conner-Rosenkranz‘s mailing list for years, even though the original art they carry is out of my price range. In return for the amazing brochures they’ve sent me (a couple are tacked on my wall), I’m delighted to be able to spread the word about the gallery. Want to own 28-inch bronze of MacMonnies’ Nathan Hale or a 100-inch gilded bronze Diana by Saint Gaudens? This is the gallery to go to.
- My favorite book on Saint Gaudens is Uncommon Clay: The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens, by Burke Wilkinson, with photographs by David Finn (who does fantastic photographs of sculptures). The quote about Sherman’s coat is Wilkinson, p. 182.
- And that reminds me: my favorite book on American figurative sculpture is Rediscoveries in American Sculpture: Studio Works 1893-1939, by Janis Conner and Joel Rosenkranz, with excellent text and more utterly fabulous photos by David Finn.
- On the vicissitudes of the commissioning and dedication of the Sherman and its tumultuous first century (anyone remember the outcry when it was gilded in the 1989?), see this excellent Dayton in Manhattan post.
- The NYC Parks Department’s site transcribes the inscriptions – and needs updating, now that the regilding is finished.
- For a comparison of the Sherman with other equestrian sculptures, as well as essays on Saint Gaudens’s Farragut and Cooper, see Outdoor Monuments of Manhattan: A Historical Guide and the Guides Who Know app Monuments of Manhattan.