Sunday, July 16, 2017

Augustus Saint-Gaudens, "Coute que Coute"

Portrait of Augustus St. Gaudens, 1908 by Kenyon Cox

Augustus Saint-Gaudens and his assistants
in the interior of the Large Studio, 1905

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was an American sculptor of the Beaux-Arts generation who most embodied the ideals of the "American Renaissance." Raised in New York City, he traveled to Europe for further training and artistic study, and then returned to New York, where he achieved major critical success for his monuments commemorating heroes of the American Civil War, many of which still stand.

General John Logan Memorial, Chicago

In "A Chronicle of Friendships," artist Will H. Low, who knew Saint-Gaudens from their time in Europe as art students and maintained the relationship upon their return to the States, shares the following insights into his character and method of working:

"In one incident of American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens' determination to give to the world none but his best, coute que coute [at all costs], I happened to be involved. The model of Captain Robert Randall was finished in every detail, all that remained was to have it enlarged ready for the final touches of the artist. This was being done in a temporary studio, somewhere in the upper part of New York, though none of us had seen it.

We had heard much, however, of the impatience of the committee which had the erection of the statue in charge and who had given the sculptor little peace of mind in their pardonable desire to hasten the end of his labours.

Such was the situation when one day Saint-Gaudens asked me to go to an address where a key would be given me. With this key I was to enter a building where I would find the "Randall," now enlarged to its full size. I was to go alone and was to study the statue "for at least half an hour," or until I felt that I had seen it sufficiently. I soon found myself in a large, sky-lit shed, completely bare of all other objects other than the small model and the full-sized statue of Randall.

My first impression was distinctly unfavourable, and this pained me considerably, for I had greatly admired the smaller model. The more I studied it, the more I found it lacking in the spirit of the lesser figure, which was entirely by Saint-Gaudens' hand, while the enlarged statue was chiefly the work of an assistant. The loss of life and action, I finally decided was more than superficial. No deft working by Saint-Gaudens would regain for it the spirit which had been lost by his less-inspired assistant. 

I debated seriously what to do. Finally all my mind centered on one thought. what would Saint-Gaudens do if the case was reversed? In the case of artistic conscience, he would coute que coute, tell the truth. I met my friend and he divined my answers, soften them as I would. Finally in a tone of decision he said, "That settles it! I didn't tell you before, but I sent John La Farge and Stanford White in the same way. All three of you without consultation say the same thing and it simply confirms my own feeling. The figure must come down. 

How he parried the impatience of the committee I know not. He began another half-sized model which was far inferior to the first, rejected that, and had the first "pointed up" again. After his skillful retouching, the finished figure in the clay was cast in plaster, molded in bronze and erected on its pedestal and looks today from the shores of Staten Island - a characteristic work of a sculptor who always, coute que coute, gave of his best.

Captain Robert Randall, Staten Harbor

The Story of the Robert Louis Stevenson Bas-relief

Augustus Saint-Gaudens had become such a fan of Robert Louis Stevenson's writings that he said that he would consider it a privilege to model his portrait. But with his vigilant guardians there was a momentary hesitation, lest the fatigue of sitting for his portrait should be more than he should be subjected to. 

But the first sight of Saint-Gaudens destroyed whatever share of this hesitation Louis might have felt for the two men took to each other from the first.

"Astonishingly young, not a bit like an invalid, and a bully fellow," was Saint-Gaudens' answer to my query concerning his impression, as we came out together from their first meeting. "I like your sculptor, what a splendid straightforward and simple fellow he is, and handsome as well," was Stevenson's salutation when I came to him later in the day.

The sittings had been arranged at this first interview and, at Saint-Gaudens' request, I endeavoured to be always present when he worked, and thanks to our triangular flow of talk, I doubt if Louis ever felt for a moment the constraint of posing.

The sculptor's easel was drawn up near the bed where Stevenson was a prisoner. Never was dungeon more enlivened by talk, of which, as usual, it is difficult to give much idea, so constantly did subjects change, and so wide the gamut from serious consideration of serious topics to the lightest and wildest chaff.

Bas-relief of Robert Louis Stevenson by Augustus Saint-Gaudens
at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The bas-relief rapidly took the form in which it was first conceived, a circular composition suggested probably by the lines of Stevenson's figure sitting propped by the pillows at his back, his knees raised; his usual position to read or write in bed.

The general composition was quickly indicated in masses, but the head along was finished at this time, the hands being completed the following year from casts which Saint-Gaudens made during Stevenson's stay at Manasquan. By that time the whole medallion was advanced nearly to completion, and in this circular form it appears to me much to be preferred to the oblong relief which, about fifteen years later, was placed in position at the Church of St. Giles in Edinburgh where many of the greater men of the country are commemorated.

The memorial may, however, be taken as merely an official variation of the original conception which fortunately remains; a copy of it built into my chimneypiece looks down on me in my studio, where, surrounded by an ivy-wreath as an emblem of friendship, the sculptor, with a decorative sense of the beauty of an inscription that was peculiarly his own, has modelled in relief on the background the entire poem with its frank acceptance of our common lot and its brave confession of abiding faith at the end: "Life is over, life was gay, We have come the primrose way. Life seemed held by but a slender thread for one of us in those days, but it was continuously gay by Stevenson's bedside as Saint-Gaudens' work grew apace." *

* from "A Chronicle of Friendships, 1873-1900" by Will H. Low

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