Saint Gaudens: great sculptor or sentimental craftsman?

There are those who believe that Augustus Saint Gaudens was the greatest sculptor America has produced to date, and others who insist he represented all that was wrong with sculpture in the late 19th century. His modernist critics, in particular, react harshly to what they perceive as his sentimentality and dependence on classical ideals and models. And several of today's younger artists have a difficult time accepting him as a genuine sculptor at all. Both partisans and critics should find further grounds for their arguments in the Metropolitan Museum's current exhibition of Saint Gaudens's work. Its roughly 60 pieces, including preliminary studies, reductions, replicas, cameos, busts, gold coins, and reliefs in marble and bronze, constitute the first major attempt since 1908 to present the broad range of his production. A highlight of the show is the statue of Adm. David Farragut, which has been lent from Madison Square Park by the New York City Dep artment of Parks and Recreation. It occupies a spot toward the far end of the recently renovated Charles Engelhard Court in the American Wing, facing a reduction of the Philadelphia Museum's ``Diana'' and several other smaller works of a similar nature.

Saint Gaudens was fortunate to have been a sculptor at a time when the United States was transformed from a war-shattered country of modest population and economic capabilities into a modern industrial nation capable of taking its place among the most important countries of the world. American art reflected this transformation, first by focusing to a greater extent on native subjects and themes, then by producing artists such as Sargent, Whistler, Chase, and Saint Gaudens, each of whom fused European an d American styles and attitudes to create art that was both national and international in scope and character.

Saint Gaudens was also fortunate to have received the very best and most up-to-date training available in the world. Beginning in 1867, he spent three years studying at the 'Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and then devoted three more years to his craft in Italy. During that period, he supported himself by cutting cameos, a skill he had perfected in New York. By 1872, however, he was ready for bigger things, and he proved it by carving ``Hiawatha,'' his first life-size statue.

After several more years traveling between these cities and New York, he decided in 1880 to put down roots in America. With his assumption of the presidency of the Society of American Artists and the successful public unveiling of his monument to Admiral Farragut in 1881, and his election as an associate of the National Academy of Design three years later, his career in art was assured. From then on, he was seldom without commissions. The last one, which he accepted in 1905 at a special dinner at the Wh ite House, was to design coins for the nation. The first model he submitted was for the double eagle $20 gold piece. Both it and the simpler $10 gold piece, which he also designed, were issued in 1907, the year of his death.

The Boston Globe, which featured his obituary on its front page, hailed him as the artist who had ``raised the standard of sculpture in America to a height little dreamed of 30 years ago.'' And yet, within a few years his reputation had faded, due largely to the influx of modernism and its totally different approach to three-dimensionality in art.

His reputation wasn't the only one to suffer, however. Those of Sargent and Chase also took severe beatings. In fact, had it not been for the interest scholars and curators took in their work in the 1970s, it might still be considered unworthy to be ranked among the major accomplishments of American art. Just so with Saint Gaudens. Revival of interest in his production can largely be attributed to the noted art historian H. W. Janson, who only recently called for a reevaluation o f his art. That plea was made all the more effective by the appearance in 1984 of three excellent shows in Boston; Newark, N.J.; and New York that paid particular attention to Saint Gaudens's cameos, other small works, bronzes, and drawings.

It is this exhibition at the Metropolitan, however, that should return to him a considerable portion of the respect he earned roughly a century ago -- although I doubt that his sculpture will ever again be viewed with the awe it inspired in his contemporaries.

For one thing, it depended just a bit too crucially upon traditional classical formal ideals. And, for another, it represented a kind of restrained and elegant sensibility we today find a little too refined to be altogether authentic. We may be genuinely moved by his ``The Adams Memorial,'' and impressed by the ``Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw,'' and yet we will probably turn with relief to such smaller and more exquisite works as the ``Portrait of Mrs. Schuyler Van Rensselaer'' and ``The Children of Pre scott Hall Butler.'' We do so, not because they are better than the more monumental pieces, but because their fragility and extraordinary technical perfection detach them totally from our own age, and permits us to respond to them as we do to Persian miniatures and lovingly carved medieval ivories.

Was Saint Gaudens the greatest American sculptor to date? I personally am satisfied to count him as one of our very best -- and to be grateful for this opportunity to see his work in such quantity. Special thanks go to Clevepak Corporation for funding this exhibition, and to Kathryn Greenthal for organizing it. After its closing at the Metropolitan on Jan. 26, the show travels to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where it will be on view from Feb. 26 through May 11.

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