Saturday, May 14, 2011

Civil War Art---Forged in the Civil War, Bronzed in Paris

Forged in the Civil War, Bronzed in Paris, David McCullough, Wall Street Journal, C13, May 14-15, 2011.

By the middle of May the last week of January 1880, the work in clay was nearly done. The Admiral stood 8 feet 3 inches tall, his legs apart, the left leg slightly back from the right. He stood as if on deck at sea braced for whatever was to come, chin up, eyes straight ahead. The flap of his long double-breasted coat seemed to blow open with the wind. And while due attention was paid to the details, there was an overall simplicity that conveyed great inner strength, no less than the presence of an actual mortal being, for all the figure's immense size. The intent, weather-beaten face said the most. The look on the face, like the latent power in the stance, left no doubt that this was a man in command.

Casting the statue in plaster was scheduled to begin on Monday, Feb. 9. "There are nineteen great bags of plaster here," Gussie reported from the studio, "and any quantity of bars of iron and they will all go into the statue. They will be four days making the mold and then . . . the plaster statue will be cast."

Then there was an accident. In the process of getting the statue free from the scaffolding, it slipped and landed hard, cracking one of the troublesome legs. Saint-Gaudens went to work, and the damage was repaired.

By the middle of May 1880, the plaster statue was ready to be cast in bronze. Taking part in the whole process day after day at the foundry, Saint-Gaudens became a nervous wreck. Two weeks later, when the lower half of the statue was cast, again something went wrong and it had to be done all over again at considerable expense.

When at last the whole cast was done, the statue's entire surface had to be expertly finished. Finally the completed work—weighing 900 pounds—had to be carefully packed up, shipped by rail to Le Havre and sent to New York. It was the largest work of sculpture in bronze by an American ever shipped from France until then.

The grand unveiling took place at Madison Square on the afternoon of May 25, 1881. A Marine band played, sailors marched. Ten thousand people stood in the hot sun to watch. Seated on the speakers' platform were Saint-Gaudens and his wife. It was his first experience with public acclaim. The monument was a stunning success. The critics were exuberant, the whole art world electrified.

For Saint-Gaudens and Gussie, those three years in Paris had been as difficult, productive and as happy as any they had known. Now, with Saint-Gaudens's brilliant debut as an artist, he had achieved recognition such as he had dreamed of. Further, he had established himself as an artist capable of doing justice to the memory of the Civil War. In time he would sculpt six of the most remarkable public monuments to the war ever created. And another of these, like the Farragut, would be made in Paris.

CWL: Writers read David McCullough. A craftsman who has authored John Adams, 1776, at least 20 other books and narrated Ken Burn's The Civil War, McCullough's control of the narrative through character is noteworthy. Chronology is always there but character and incidents are primary.

Text Source: The above text is an excerpt of the full text which is located at the Wall Street Journal, May 14-15, 2011.

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