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Friday, September 14, 2012

September 14, 2012: Augustus Saint-Gaudens

[There are few Boston sites that I would more highly recommend for a fall visit—for anybody, from tourists to lifelong residents, students to seniors, and American Studiers of all varieties—than the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. For this week’s series, I’ll be blogging about five topics connected to the Museum and its historical and cultural contexts. Please add your responses, and your suggestions for other unique American sites and experiences, for the weekend’s crowd-sourced post!]
On the artist whose inspiring American and international legacy is written in stone.
I’ve already said a good bit in this space about Augustus Saint-Gaudens, the Irish American sculptor and Boston Cosmopolitan par excellance: first in this post on his most inspiring work, Boston’s Robert Gould Shaw Memorial; and then in his March 1st Memory Day nomination. Saint-Gaudens has a great deal in common with the week’s other figures: not just in his artistic and cultural community and relationships, such as his lifelong working friendship with the architects Stanford White and Charles McKim; not just as an international traveler who brought inspiration from all those places back to his work on distinctly American monuments and memorials; but also and most especially in his dual and complementary desires for American art and society. Like all of the week’s focal figures, that is, Saint-Gaudens sought both to more fully link America to the old world (in every sense) and to bring it more successfully into its own new world future.
Two of Saint-Gaudens’ other impressive public sculptures and monuments exemplify that balance. His “German Sherman Led by Victory,” located in the Grand Army Plaza of New York’s Central Park, took Saint-Gaudens more than a decade to complete; the result weds the old and new worlds explicitly, in its iconography and in its link of a distinctly mythological figure (one sculpted as such) to a highly realitistic one (in both content and style). Far more intimate and yet just as compelling and thematically rich is his “Adams Memorial or Grief,” a sculpture located in Washington, DC’s Rock Creek Cemetery; the sculpture, a tribute to Henry Adams’ wife Clover after her 1885 suicide, casts that real person and American as a mythological figure, one generally known as Grief but also called by Saint-Gaudens “The Mystery of the Hereafter and The Peace of God that Passeth Understanding.” In some ways the sculpture echoes dramatically Sargent’s end-of-life portrait of Isabella Stewart Gardner; but in others it weds such a humanistic portrayal to millennium-old mythological narratives, bringing the American present and the world’s past together in particularly striking ways.
To me, that connection and combination sums up quite concisely the goals of all this week’s figures, and and certainly of Isabella Stewart Gardner and her Museum. There’s no question that Gardner and her fellow Cosmopolitans loved much of what they found in Europe, especially its historical and cultural depth and breadth. But there’s likewise no question that these artists, authors, and activists worked throughout their lives to strengthen America, to help construct an American culture, community, and tradition that could learn from the best of and ultimately rival those in Europe. Such a goal might fly in the face of the new world mythos, and of American ideals and narratives of independence and self-making and the like. But once we dissociate American history and identity from such narratives—and as I have argued many times, there’s very good reason to do so—we open ourselves up to the possibility that Gardner and her fellow Cosmopolitans were right: that one of the best ways to build an American future is to learn about and incorporate the cultural, historical, artistic, and inspiring strengths of the world beyond.
Crowd-sourced post this weekend,
PS. So what do you think? Thoughts of this post or any of the week’s posts? Other unique sites or figures you’d highlight?
9/14 Memory Day nominee: Margaret Sanger, the nurse, sex educator, and birth control activist whose founding of Planned Parenthood and radical views remain controversial to this day, but who unquestionably helped expand 20th century American women’s options and futures.

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