Alexandra Lange | Essays

Summer As a Verb

Another visitor to the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site was speaking on her cell phone. “I am visiting Saint Gardens, in Cornish,” she said. And she wasn’t all wrong. The estate of sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Cornish, NH is a little bit of heaven on earth, with rolling lawns, a birch walk, a wildflower meadow and a scattering of buildings that demonstrate an urbanite’s vision of country life from the turn of the nineteenth century. A barn developed into a stage with a neo-classical pergola and a clerestory. A plain farmhouse was dressed up with a Dutch stepped gable and a deep porch with trellises and a red-painted floor. The garden wasdivided into blocks, and each hedged cell now houses a famous work, including Saint-Gaudens’ Robert Gould Shaw memorial frieze—a tribute to the leader of the first black regiment to fight for the Union in the Civil War. (Matthew Broderick played Shaw in Glory.) The carefully modeled heads of the soldiers, with specific, non-stereotyped African-American faces, are on display in another building.

Saint-Gaudens was part of a larger summer outflux of artists to Cornish. Other famous names include borderline soft-porn painter Maxfield Parrish (my college roommate had his Ecstacy pinned up on her wall), the now completely eclipsed novelist Winston Churchill, and assorted other painters, engravers, gardeners and musicians linked by their love of classical dress-up, particularly for their fancifully named children. (There are some great period photos in the book New Hampshire’s Cornish Colony.)

Besides being a lovely place to picnic, the site is also an indoor and outdoor museum of Saint-Gaudens’ work, which turns out to be ubiquitous but also, for me, completely overlooked. Saint-Gaudens is responsible for the style of American coinage, as he and friend Teddy Roosevelt led the effort to create more beautiful money, most notably the gold double-eagle coin. Saint-Gaudens also had a hand in many of those memorial sculptures I completely ignore in city parks. If it isn’t Daniel Chester French, it’s probably Saint-Gaudens.

The most interesting of the large sculptures on display is the Farragut Memorial from Madison Square Park. The original base was done in bluestone, which proved too soft for the rain, and was sent back to Cornish and replaced with a granite facsimile. The statue of Admiral Farragut is fine in its way—a nice likeness, in contemporary dress—but the base is allusive and clever. Designed by Stanford White (a frequent collaborator) as a semi-circular bench, it looks as if it is in the process of being etched by the waves, with fish caught in currents forming the two front corners. As the waves carry around the back, they turn into draperies on two mourning maidens. Saint-Gaudens and White’s names are written on a bronze crab. In Cornish this sculpture sits in a little glass-roofed open-ended barn, part of a complex with the Little Studio and a gallery that shows the work of contemporary artists in residence. The building manages to make the big urban sculpture work in the rural setting, and helps you focus on the artist’s hand in a way that’s impossible in the city. Perhaps that’s why all these artists had to summer: they couldn’t really think, or watch a stream, or play at being nymphs and satyrs in the city.

In The New Yorker of August 24, 2009, Peter Schjeldahl reviews a show of Saint-Gaudens’ work at the Met, and reports on his trip to Cornish.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

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