[March 17th is St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that is apparently a far bigger deal in the U.S. than in Ireland. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of famous Irish American cultural figures, leading up to a post on some wonderful Irish American literary voices!]
On the artist whose inspiring Irish 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 other late 19th century Bostonian cultural 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 Isabella Stewart Gardner and so many of her friends and contemporaries, 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 “General 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 John Singer 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 these late 19th century artistic 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.
Next Irish American tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Irish Americans you’d highlight?
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