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.
As the Saint-Gaudens centennial year comes to an end, this is a good time to view not only the coin exhibition, but the rest of the great sculptor's legacy to New York. His Admiral Farragut Monument, in Madison Square, was dedicated in 1881, and was Saint-Gaudens's first public commission. The bronze statue of the courageous admiral (who famously said, "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!") standing on the prow of his ship surely ranks as one of the noblest things in New York. While the body and the wind-blown garments mark the ascension of the new realism, in the spirit of Donatello, in American sculpture, it is the admiral's determined visage — the personification of fortitude — that moves the viewer nearly to tears, and that invites comparison with Holbein's magnificent portrait of Sir Thomas More, in the Frick Collection. Saint-Gaudens designed the beautiful exedra — the semicircle upon which the sculpture stands — with his close friend, the architect Stanford White, who 25 years and a few days after the monument's dedication was shot and killed.
Arguably, Saint-Gaudens's greatest work was his equestrian monument to General William Tecumseh Sherman, at Grand Army Plaza, at Fifth Avenue and 59th Street. It is one of the handful of the greatest equestrian statues in the world, a work of profoundly good composition and modeling, and also, like the Farragut, an intensely moving work. This was one of the sculptor's last public commissions, dedicated in 1903. When the Chamber of Commerce of the State of New York commissioned the work in 1892, they thought it would be ready in two years. Saint-Gaudens spent 11 years as he labored mightily over achieving exactly the right relationships among the forward tilts of the three principal elements: stubble-faced Sherman, his fine horse (modeled on the famous jumper Ontario), and the winged angel (modeled on Saint-Gaudens's mistress, Davida Johnson) leading them on. At the time of commissioning, the setting of the monument had not been determined, and we are fortunate indeed that it wound up where it is, where sky, not buildings, forms the backdrop. To view this work from the east, its gilded form etched majestically against a perfectly blue sky, is to see the most beautiful thing in New York, however evanescent the display. Worryingly, the gilding is now flaking off in chunks, and it needs desperately to be attended to. (A small casting of Sherman's angel adorns the coin exhibition, and it's a pleasure to be able to study it up close.)
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).