By: Sheila Gibson Stoodley
When the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York mounts a Saint-Gaudens exhibition, it tends to be a major event. Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which opens June 30 and continues through Nov. 15, will be the fourth such exhibition in the Met’s history and the first since 1986, and it promises to uphold that tradition. A total of 80 objects, including at least 45 owned by the institution, will provide a comprehensive overview of the Irish-born American sculptor’s body of work. It ranges from a cameo that Saint-Gaudens cut as a young apprentice circa 1861 to a bronze bust of General William Tecumseh Sherman sculpted in 1888 in the course of creating the Sherman Monument, his last great project. (The Met’s bust was cast in 1910.) “I can tell the story of his career using works from the Met’s collection as a lens,” says Thayer Tolles, the Met associate curator who organized the show. “I want to focus on a very strong, complete collection of works, rounded out by a few loans that enhance the collection.” The Saint-Gaudens show also marks the reopening of several areas that the Met closed two years ago for the second phase of a renovation of the American Wing. (The exhibition originally had been scheduled for 2007, the centenary of the sculptor’s death, but was postponed because of the refurbishments.) The reopening includes the Charles Engelhard Court, which serves as the American Wing’s entrance, and it, too, will be part of the show.
Five pieces by Saint-Gaudens will be among the 60 artworks permanently installed in the courtyard, including two of his best-known sculptures, Hiawatha and Diana. The full-scale Hiawatha, inspired by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem about an Iroquois chief, marked a turning point for Saint-Gaudens. He crafted the original in clay in Rome in 1871–72, predicting that it would “amaze the world and settle my future.” Edwin D. Morgan, a former governor of New York, underwrote a marble version in 1874 that later found its way to the Met. The gilded bronze Diana was cast in 1928 at the behest of Daniel Chester French, a colleague and friend of the sculptor as well as a Met trustee. French had the bronze made to ensure that New Yorkers would always be able to see Saint-Gaudens’ only female nude; a 13-foot version that he fashioned in 1892 for the Madison Square Garden tower became part of the cityscape, but after the complex was demolished in 1925, it was given to a Philadelphia museum.
The courtyard should assist Tolles in her goal of helping patrons gain fresh respect for Saint-Gaudens’ art. “I want people to get up close to his works and appreciate them three-dimensionally,” she says. “Whenever possible, I want them to be able to walk around the object and see it unfold in 360 degrees.”