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Sunday, June 30, 2019

Irish-born Augustus Saint-Gaudens, America's Master Sculptor in the 19th Century

Courtesy of Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, NH

Acclaimed as America's greatest sculptor of the 19th century, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was born on March 1, 1848 on Charlemount Street in Dublin at the height of the Irish Famine, when millions of Irish were fleeing Ireland to places like Boston, New York, Montreal, St. John and other eastern port cities.  

His father Bernard Saint-Gaudens was a French cobbler who had "a wonderfully complex mixture of a fierce French accent and Irish brogue."  His mother, Mary McGuinness, was born in Bally Mahon, County Longford, to Arthur McGuinness and Mary Daly.

According to his son Homer, when Augustus was six months old, "the famine in Ireland compelled (the family) to go to America."  They landed in Boston in September 1848, where they lived for six weeks until the father found work in New York City and sent for them.  Augustus apprenticed as a cameo cutter, and in 1867 moved to Paris, where he studied at Des Beaux-Arts, then to Rome in 1870.  He met his wife, Augusta Homer, an American art student, while there, who was born and raised in Roxbury, MA.

Saint-Gaudens' first major commission of Civil War leader Admiral David Glasgow Farragut was unveiled at Madison Square Garden in 1881.  In his career he created over 150 sculptures, such as the Adams Memorial in Washington and the General Logan Memorial and Abraham Lincoln statue in Chicago.  He worked closely with his brother Louis and wife Augusta, and had a number of outstanding pupils such as Frederick MacMonnies and John Flanagan.  

Shaw Memorial in Boston

Augustus' most famous work is the Shaw Memorial a homage to the 54th Black Infantry Regiment of Boston. It took Saint-Gaudens fourteen years to complete the memorial, partly because there was an early disagreement among patrons regarding how the piece should look.  Plus, the perfectionist artist approached the project in a painstaking manner, seeking out forty black men in New York to use as models, from which he chose 16 to appear on the final memorial.  The memorial was unveiled in 1897 at a ceremony attended by Booker T. Washington, philosopher William James, and the families of the soldiers.  It is located near the site where Civil War regiments mustered before going off to war.

Saint-Gaudens' other major sculpture of interest is the Charles Stuart Parnell statue on O'Connell Street in Dublin, which was his last major work before he died in 1907.  The Parnell Memorial was unveiled in 1911, finished by his studio, which was led by his brother Louis.

Other Saint-Gaudens sculptures include the Phillips Brooks statue next to Trinity Church in Copley Square; the Puritan in Springfield, MA; the General Sherman Monument in Central Park, New York City; the Marcus Daly statue in Butte, MT; the official seals on the front entrance to the Boston Public Library; the Nevins Monument at Mt. Auburn Cemetery.  

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site

Saint-Gaudens is buried at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire, which is now a National Historic Site open to the public. 

The Shaw Memorial is part of Boston's Irish Heritage Trail and the Boston Black Heritage Trail. It is located on Beacon Street, facing the Massachusetts State House.MBTA: Red Line to Park Street Station.Read about the Shaw Memorial's restoration in 2019.

Read more about Irish sculptors who came to the US in the 19th century.

Find more about Boston's Irish history at

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