This was another one of those experiences where I knew nothing about it and then got there and realized that I actually knew stuff about this and had never put it together. I never really remember things like band names, or songs, or albums, which bothers my husband to no end. Apparently my art history is the same. Augustus Saint-Gaudens is one of the premier American sculptures and is specifically known for his civil war works. Which is fortuitous because we are just wrapping up our Civil War unit.
We arrived at the site and immediately became concerned it was closed (spoiler alert IT WAS.) After parking we walked up a lovely trail with a babbling brook until we found what appeared to be a visitors center. There were a group of people near the door. They told us to come on inside and the young man, who turned out to be an intern, offered to put the movie on for us. The visitors center was small and mostly closed up. There was a nice case of related physical objects, which always adds tactile depth to the movies and it looked like there was a bit more that wasn’t ready in other portions of the visitor center. The movie gave an excellent overview of his process and and talked about how inspired Saint-Gaudens was by Lincoln, so much so that he stood in line to say farewell TWICE, when Lincoln’s body made it’s death tour. Saint- Gaudens was heavily inspired by realistic details, but also strove to add classical elements of the mythic/heroic. His very realistic statues would often have details that invoke classical aspiration, like in the base of the of the Farragut Monument. The two women depicted on the bench are Courage and Loyalty. He also felt strongly that art should exist with interaction, so many of his pieces were installed with bases that were interactive like benches. This is the original pedestal, but is a second casting bronze. The original still stands in Madison Square Park on a granite base that will wear better than this sandstone. I had seen this statue growing up in NYC and never really thought about it since, but it gave me a familiar homey feeling. The other monument I had recognized from the movie was the Sherman monument which sits at the edge of Central Park and has Sherman on his charging horse with Victory guiding him.
The grounds were absolutely stunning, even snow covered and mostly closed. You could hear running water throughout our walk and there were beautiful birch trees, as well as hiking trails into deeper forest. Everything had that wonderful, thick, peat smell -like moldering, vibrant life waiting to burst forth. The site is absolutely gorgeous and includes, Gauden’s home, studio and gardens, as well as hiking trails. We didn’t take any of the hiking trails as it was incredibly damp and marshy, and the trails we considered had a steep down slope that looked like it would be tricky to navigate back up in the current state. I think this park is a terrific blend of historical and nature, much like Saint-Gaudens himself.
While we didn’t get to tour the home or the galleries, there are many of his pieces throughout the landscape. Some of the statues are hidden in a hedge maze, including his arguably most famous piece the Shaw Memorial. I had learned about the Shaw Memorial in college, again no connection/memory of it until I walked around a hedge and went “Oh Yeah!” Then I preceded to art history style lecture my kids on all I remembered.
The Shaw Memorial is in honor of Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, which was the first African American regiment organized by the Union during the Civil War. The thing that makes this piece stand out is Gauden’s treatment of his subjects. Contrary most art of the time Gauden sculpted each soldier independently, using over 40 models. This is so unusual in 19th century depictions of people of color, who are most often portrayed as monolithic and even worse, caricatured. You can see in this close up of the soldiers faces each one is an individual, as they would have been in reality, and each row of soldiers is equally unique. Standing in front of it was breathtaking, and you could feel the magnitude of both the sacrifices of these soldiers and the truth the artist depicted. His attention to detail is carried through other aspects of the relief as well. I included a picture of the waists as well and you can see the recognizable civil war cap box and canteens. Lemon spent so long at Antietam trying to find a cap box in the display but she pointed this one out right away!
The grounds are well worth the trip, even if most of the exhibits are closed, because there is so much here. There is more to Gauden’s story, his work for the U.S. Mint, his legacy as part of the Beaux Arts movement and his prowess as a teacher, are all things I am sure are handled within those buildings. Unfortunately, they had no Junior Ranger books available but we were given badges at Marsh Billings Rockefeller, because the Rangers there were super excited. I have confiscated them until the kids complete the book I printed out but that will sadly be after our big trip, but you can get a sneak peek before the kids!
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