Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was born in Dublin, Ireland, to a French father and Irish mother. When Saint-Gaudens was an infant, his parents were among the millions of Irish citizens who immigrated to the United States because of the Great Famine. The family settled in New York, and, at the age of thirteen, Saint-Gaudens began an apprenticeship with a cameo cutter named Louis Avet. After additional training at the National Academy of Design, where he worked from Greek and Roman statues and nude models, Saint-Gaudens eventually traveled to Europe, where he studied first in Paris and later in Rome. He returned to America 1876 and soon received a number of important commissions for public monuments, statues, and bas-relief portraits. Among the best known are the Farragut Memorial in New York; the Shaw Memorial in Boston, the so-called Standing Lincoln in Chicago, and the Adams Memorial in Washington, DC. In 1901, Saint-Gaudens was chosen to be a part of the Senate Park Commission, a group formed redevelop Washington, D.C. into a grand capital city and cultural center. His last commission, from President Theodore Roosevelt, was a design for the $20 gold coin.
Saint-Gaudens often collaborated with the architect Stanford White, a leading architect of the era. White was also part of museum founder Charles Lang Freer’s circle. He designed frames for many paintings in Freer’s collection, and Freer even hoped to hire White to design his museum on the National Mall. (White’s murder in 1906 [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanford_White] forced a change of plan, with Charles Adams Platt, a White protégé, ultimately awarded the commission.) Freer also hoped to acquire a work by Saint-Gaudens for the 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 a pair of allegorical figures by Saint-Gaudens, a never-completed project for the Boston Public Library that were posthumously cast in bronze from a half-size plaster model. Freer envisioned the so-called Library Groups as a note of subtle adornment to the museum’s central courtyard.