The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 53, December 30, 2007, Article 10


[This week the New York Sun published a review of the
American Numismatic Society's exhibit on Augustus Saint-Gaudens.
Here are some excerpts.  -Editor]

The year that is about to close marks two noteworthy and
related centennials. In 1907, America's greatest sculptor,
Augustus Saint-Gaudens, died. Also in that year, the federal
government issued the gold coins - in $10 and $20 denominations
- that it had commissioned Saint-Gaudens to design. Most
people know of Saint-Gaudens for his large-scale public
works that ennoble certain lucky American cities, including
and especially New York. But as a fine exhibition mounted
by the American Numismatic Society at the Federal Reserve
Bank of New York attests, the master sculptor was equally
adept on a scale as small as a coin.

It should be noted that attending an exhibition at the
Federal Reserve Bank can be a daunting experience. The
first time I tried to visit, the Federal Reserve Police
(yes, they have their very own branch of the federal security
apparatus) barred my entrance for lack of proper identification.
I returned - duly equipped with my documents - the next day,
and got in - only to wait nearly half an hour while the next
line of security personnel examined my ID and pecked away at
a computer keyboard. (I almost asked if they were checking to
see if I had a police record, but you really can't make small
talk with federal security guys.) By this point, the visitor
may wonder why the American Numismatic Society would mount
their show in one of the hardest-to-enter buildings in New
York. Once I'd been cleared, I saw why. The groin-vaulted
galleries of York & Sawyer's splendid building, marked off
by wrought-iron fences by Samuel Yellin, America's greatest
artist in iron, may well be the most exhilarating exhibition
spaces in the entire city.

The idea for the new gold coins came from President Theodore
Roosevelt, who had met Saint-Gaudens and admired his work.
Which was an important connection: It took presidential
patronage to get the project through. Saint-Gaudens had
had a bad experience with the United States Mint and its
chief engraver, Charles Barber, for whom the design of coins
was a sort of personal fiefdom. The president's support
notwithstanding, the 61-year-old Saint-Gaudens struggled
doggedly to push through his designs, even as he was dying
from cancer. The exhibition relates it all in stunning
detail, with letters (including from Roosevelt), drawings,
successive relief strikings, models of Saint-Gaudens's
statuary, photographs, and ancient coins that inspired
Saint-Gaudens. In the end, the $20 "double eagle," as one
of the most beautiful coins ever minted, crowned a spectacular
career. Now that I know the drill, I will return to this
exhibition as often as possible without arousing the
guards' suspicions.

Saint-Gaudens worked at small scale on the coins and at
large scale on the public monuments. But New York also
abounds in his medium-scale work, such as the domestic
commissions that paid his bills. The American Wing of
the Metropolitan Museum of Art boasts the stupendous
fireplace and mantel he designed for the mansion of
Cornelius Vanderbilt II on Fifth Avenue at 57th Street
(where Bergdorf Goodman now stands). In the lobby of
the New York Palace Hotel can be seen a fireplace with
a superb overmantel by Saint-Gaudens, done originally
for the dining room of 451 Madison Ave., the home of
Henry Villard, which now houses a restaurant called
Gilt. In that restaurant, another Saint-Gaudens fireplace,
as well as his extraordinary bronze clock with signs of
the zodiac in marble, can still be seen in situ. And
another public work merits a look: The monument to Peter
Cooper, in Cooper Square, is very fine, even as it lacks
the emotional frisson of the Farragut and Sherman monuments.

Thanks to the American Numismatic Society and the Federal
Reserve Bank of New York, now is the best time we may ever
have to enjoy in such abundance the full range of work of
our greatest sculptor.

Until March 31 (33 Liberty St., between Nassau and William
streets, 212-720-4470).

To read the complete article, see:

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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