Portrait of an artist unrivaled in his time

Uncommon Clay: the Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens, by Burke Wilkinson. San Diego and New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 428 pp. Illustrated; indexed. $22.95. ``Uncommon Clay'' is uncommonly good.

Uncommonly good because, as a biography of an artist, it is devoted to the art to which the artist devoted his life. Uncommonly good because it is uncommonly well written: Wilkinson's own art of prose is magisterial in its tact and superb attack (to use a musical metaphor). Disposed in three ``books,'' the basic material of the book, provided by five years of intense research by Wilkinson and his assistant Elizabeth Ajemian, is treated as the great sculptor Saint Gaudens himself would have treated his s ubjects, with tender and noble regard for essential qualities.

Born in Dublin (two miles south of the spot where his statue of Charles Stewart Parnell would be unveiled 63 years later) to a French father and an Irish mother, Saint Gaudens rose out of social obscurity into a preeminence as an artist rivaled by none in his time. The famine that had killed one-third of the Irish nation in 1846 drove his family across the Atlantic to Boston in 1848. Augustus's father took them to New York, where he prospered modestly in the shoe trade. His son, evidently possessed of a

fureur esth'etique from age 9, needed to work, so he was apprenticed to a cameo cutter. Later, his mastery of shallow relief would be reinforced by his impressions of Florentine quattrocento shallow relief. Saint Gaudens was able to sketch a man or woman's character in bronze. Those who like John Singer Sargent should love Saint Gaudens.

But Saint Gaudens was more than an American Impressionist in sculpture; and more, as H. W. Janson points out in his fine ``Nineteenth Century Sculpture,'' than a product of the beaux-arts tradition.

``Uncommon Clay'' reveals how much more for the first time. Wilkinson tells the whole life, fascinating in its own right, with passionate attention to detail. In this he may have taken his cue from Saint Gaudens himself, whose great monumental statues were remarkable in their time, and are in ours, for fidelity to fact. Wilkinson imitates the monumental sculpture in another, more subtle way. Saint Gaudens was able to invest stone and bronze with life and motion and a kind of extra dimension. To his cont emporaries' dismay, Saint Gaudens would add to, say, the already authentic equestrian portrait of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman another figure, a chaste, truly ingenuous angel leading the proud soldier toward victory and immortality.

Wilkinson, besides being concerned with the details of the life, pursues the question of Saint Gaudens's artistic integrity. At one point he speaks of ``a romantic lightness and elegance that are Saint Gaudens's very own''; later, in evaluating some of the less successful statues, he will say, ``All that is missing here is la patte, the indelible Saint Gaudens stamp.''

This ``stamp'' eludes formal analysis. Only a profound understanding of the man reveals it. We get that in ``Uncommon Clay.'' Man, as revealed in ``Uncommon Clay'' and the great work of Saint Gaudens, has an identity which artists figure forth with winged angels and ``Victories'' and chaste angelic women.

Indeed, Wilkinson has been most persistent in attempting to uncover the sculptor's affairs of the heart. There were few; only one, really. The wonderful neo-florentin Diana, which was first a towering weather vane atop Madison Square Garden and now can be viewed in several versions in Philadelphia and New York; Diana, pictured on the cover of John H. Dryfhout's indispensable catalog of ``The Work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens'' (University Press of New England) -- this superb evocation of femin ine grace may be traced back in part to Saint Gaudens's well-kept secret of a mistress, Davida Johnson Clark. Their union produced a son (as did Saint Gaudens's marriage to Augusta Homer, who is dealt with tenderly but honestly in these pages). Otherwise, very little is known about Davida, other than the fine shape of her beautiful head, which graces many of Saint Gaudens's proudly feminine figures.

Saint Gaudens's identity as an artist cannot be separated from his identity as a human being -- hence the propriety, the necessity, of the biography. But what Wilkinson calls the personal stamp of the artist has outlived the man. We find it in many of the monuments all over these United States and in Ireland. We see it in the heroic standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago; we see it in the tragic and elegant Shaw memorial on the Boston Common in Boston; we see it, somewhat muted, in the Parnell Monume nt in Dublin; we see it in ``The Pilgrim'' in Philadelphia; we see it, obscurely but no less overwhelmingly, in the Adams Monument in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington, D.C.; and we see it, perhaps most of all, in the Sherman Monument at Grand Army Plaza, New York.

What do we see? Of the Sherman, Lorado Taft wrote: ``[Saint Gaudens] has successfully united a very precise rendering of an individual with a poetic abstraction. . . . By some magic the artist has made her [the ``Victory''] so integral a part of the composition that her presence pervades and colors the whole.''

A man is more than blood and bone. W. B. Yeats wrote in 1930: ``My character is so little myself that all my life it has thwarted me. It has affected my poems, my true self, no more than the character of a dancer affects the movements of a dance.'' Behind that tragic insight into the dilemma of the artist -- that character and self seem to be at odds -- lies the fact, a matter of record now for Saint Gaudens as it has been for Yeats, that the thwarting did not frustrate the life in the art.

A man is more than blood and bone. What is this more? It will become increasingly evident, as we absorb what Burke Wilkinson has shown us of Saint Gaudens, that we can go to this great American artist for an answer, and a satisfactory one.

``Uncommon Clay'' is one of the best books of the season. The photographs of Saint Gaudens's work by David Finn are superb; they do what one would have thought impossible: bring out visually what Wilkinson, with all the art of his masterly prose, has brought out verbally. Indeed, the book has a satisfying completeness about it. It deserves lots of awards. More, it deserves readers. It's a revelation.

Thomas D'Evelyn is the Monitor's book editor.

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