Heroic yet human...

Currier Museum of Art showcases artistry of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens

NHWeekend Editor
February 28. 2018 12:56PM

“STANDING LINCOLN”: Cast after 1910, this bronze piece is a smaller version of the “Standing Lincoln” monument that Augustus Saint-Gaudens created in the 1880s here in New Hampshire, at the celebrated Cornish Colony. The bronze cast is being shown in an exhibit of the sculptor's works at The Currier Museum of Art in Manchester. (Photo courtesy of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site)
If you go...
WHAT: 'The Sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens'

WHEN: Through Sunday, May 20

WHERE: The Currier Museum of Art, 150 Ash St., Manchester

INFO: currier.org; 669-6144

ADMISSION: $15 for adults, $13 for ages 65 and older, $10 for students, $5 for ages 13 to 17 and free for children younger than 13.

ETC.: There is free admission each month on the second Saturday for New Hampshire residents arriving before noon.

I’m peering up into the downturned face of a pensive Abraham Lincoln.

In front of a ceremonial chair with intricate scrollwork and depictions of wide-winged eagles, the 16th president has risen to give a speech. But first he glances down, seeming to gather himself. It’s a pause that inexplicably makes me go still. I feel a hushed reverence, like those who waited a beat for him to raise his head, take a breath and begin.

Which is why I don’t hear two other visitors slip into the Currier Museum of Art’s showcase of Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ masterful artwork. I had been leaning over to study a detail in a bronze cast of “Standing Lincoln” and embarrassingly jolt upright when they launch into an animated discussion that suddenly booms through the gallery.

But that’s the beauty of getting lost in a piece of art. And it’s a fitting reminder that Saint-Gaudens (1848–1907), a founding member of the Granite State’s Cornish Colony and an internationally known sculptor of grand monuments, was a master at proving the heroic and the human can share the same space.

When I turn back to Lincoln, I see a resolve and a heavy sigh. I find the lines worn into slashes on his forehead above unruly eyebrows and the creases scored into the sides of his mouth. There’s the sense that the thoughts occupying his mind are weighing down his imposing 6-foot, 4-inch frame. Yet, unlike the muscular, unmoving lion’s paws that root the “Chair of State” behind him, Lincoln seems to be on the verge of motion, his left slightly leg bent and the tip of his shoe jutting out from the platform as if he’s just shifted his weight onto his back leg.

Each Saint-Gaudens piece carries with it a story that is in many ways still in progress; the chapters are left open to impression and interpretation, with all the romance and reality that people carry into their own footnotes.

To get a behind-the-scenes look at the Saint-Gaudens retrospective and celebrated pieces including “Diana,” “The Shaw Memorial” and “Standing Lincoln,” NHWeekend turned to Andrew Spahr, director of collections and exhibitions at the Currier, for a Q&A.

Is there a particular piece that seems to be drawing attention and discussion among visitors?

The large 7-foot-tall Diana has been a favorite on many of the tours I have given. It was Saint-Gaudens’s only female nude and is a stunningly beautiful bronze figure. The original large version — on top of the first Madison Square Garden — was the first sculpture in New York illuminated by electricity and could be seen from New Jersey day and night.

The presentation of the Adams Memorial’s shrouded figure in dim lighting seems to add to the dual sense of grief and repose. What went into deciding how to use that treatment?

We were interested in offering visitors a variety of different ways to view and experience Saint-Gaudens’ sculptures, and it seemed natural to provide a contemplative setting for this mysterious and moving sculpture.

We wanted to set it off from the rest of the exhibition without trying to “recreate” the setting of the bronze, which is in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C. Visitors have found the gallery very moving.

Standing in front of “Standing Lincoln,” I was struck by how Saint-Gaudens managed to make him unattainably heroic and understandably human at the same time. What is it about this sculpture that continues to resonate with people?

I think that’s exactly it ... heroic yet human. When he was a teenager, Saint-Gaudens had seen Lincoln in New York parading down Fifth Avenue. Then when Lincoln was lying in state in New York (after his 1865 assassination), Saint-Gaudens stood in a long line to see him — twice. He felt a real personal connection to Lincoln and also to his ideals.

He also worked from plaster casts of Lincoln’s face and hands for added realism. The duality of combining the heroic with the natural depiction of his subjects is one of the hallmarks of Saint-Gaudens’s sculpture and what made him the most important American sculptor of his day. He introduced a new way of thinking about monuments and memorials, and that was recognized in America and in Europe.

Are there any misconceptions about what a “reduction” is, as opposed to a copy of a piece of art?

We have made a point of addressing that in the exhibition layout and the interpretive text. My sense is that visitors understand the difference and appreciate Saint-Gaudens’ dedication to creativity and quality that compelled him to personally recreate works in smaller scale (as opposed to mechanically reproduced copies). 

I read in your exhibit literature that smaller casts of grand-scale works can actually contain subtle differences. Can you give me an example?

On view are a large 7-foot “Diana” and the Currier’s smaller 30-inch version. If you look carefully you can see changes he made to the overall pose as well as in details of the hands and the bow she is holding.

The Currier sculpture is set on one of the several different integrated bases he designed for the Diana reductions.

The Currier lists this as the first such exhibition in more than 30 years in New England. Why do you think one hasn’t been mounted before? And why was it important for the Currier to do so?

The Currier has been considering this show for almost 10 years, so we have been thinking about Saint-Gaudens for quite a while. Perhaps the availability of his work at (Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, run by the National Park Service) had has some influence.

We’re hoping this exhibition encourages more people to visit the site and see his home and studio and learn more about his art and the important part he played in New Hampshire and American history. 

Do you have a sense of how many visitors have viewed the exhibition since its Feb. 10 opening?

We had almost 400 people for the opening event, and it’s been busy since then with both the public and lots of school tours. 

Where does this exhibition fit in with your vision for 2018 at the Currier?

Saint-Gaudens was the most important American sculptor of the late 19th century and the first to achieve significant international acclaim. The exhibition continues the Currier’s commitment to exhibit the work of the region’s most accomplished historic and contemporary artists.

Like the Mount Washington exhibition (“Mount Washington: The Crown of New England,” 2016), we like to look at important chapters in American art and history where New Hampshire played a major role. Through its exhibitions and collections the museum will continue to explore the places where New Hampshire intersects with the national and international narrative of art and culture.

(Editor’s note: The Saint-Gaudens exhibition also features low-relief portraiture Saint-Gaudens did in designing coins and cameos.)

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