Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907) was born in Dublin, Ireland, to a French father and Irish mother. While he was an infant, his parents were among the millions of Irish who immigrated to the United States during the Great Famine between 1845 and 1852. The family settled in New York City, and at the age of thirteen Saint-Gaudens began an apprenticeship to the cameo cutter Louis Avet. After additional training at the National Academy of Design, where he worked from Greek and Roman statues and nude models, Saint-Gaudens traveled to Europe and studied first in Paris and later in Rome. He returned to the United States in 1876 and soon received important commissions for public monuments, statues, and bas-relief portraits. Among the best known are the Farragut Memorial in New York City, the Shaw Memorial in Boston, the so-called Standing Lincoln in Chicago, and the Adams Memorial in Washington, D.C. In 1901 Saint-Gaudens joined the Senate Park Commission, a group formed to redevelop Washington, D.C., into a grand capital city and cultural center. His last commission, from President Theodore Roosevelt, was to design a $20 gold coin.
Saint-Gaudens often collaborated with Stanford White, a leading architect of the era and a friend of museum founder Charles Lang Freer. White designed frames for many paintings in Freer’s collection, and Freer hoped to hire White to design his museum on the National Mall. (After White’s shocking murder in 1906, architect Charles Adams Platt, a White protégé, received the commission.) Freer also hoped to acquire a work by Saint-Gaudens for his museum: a classical stele with a life-size female figure in bas-relief representing the art of painting. White’s death and Saint-Gaudens’s own long battle with cancer thwarted that idea. Years later, Freer purchased instead the pair of allegorical figures by Saint-Gaudens now known as the Library Group.
The preeminent sculptor of the Gilded Age, Saint-Gaudens infused classical ideals of beauty with a new attention to naturalism, fundamentally redirecting the course of American sculpture in the years after the Civil War. Saint-Gaudens was more than a gifted artist; his cosmopolitan connections and impressive social networks made him an emblem of America’s burgeoning cultural sophistication. In addition to his public monuments, his work can be found today in virtually every major museum in the United States. His home, gardens, and studio in Cornish, New Hampshire, have been turned into a National Historic Site operated by the National Park Service.