Friday, January 23, 2015

Saint-Gaudens' 1903 Gen'l Wm. Tecumseh Sherman Statue

Like the statue, the bronze laurel wreaths applied to the red granite base are gold-leafed.  photograph New York City Parks Department

In 1887 the 40-year old sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens completed his powerful bust of General William Tecumseh Sherman.  Although the artist would later complain that Sherman insisted on looking directly at him, making a good profile impossible; the several sittings resulted in a friendship.

Saint-Gaudens’s sitter was a complex character.  Still generally reviled in the South, Sherman was considered a hero in the North for bringing about the surrender of the Confederate armies.   His March to the Sea was considered needlessly heartless by many, and his refusal to embrace “Negro equality” bothered others.  But overall, at least in the North, he was a monumental figure.

Sherman died in New York City on February 14, 1891 and within two weeks plans were underway to honor him with a suitable monument.  On March 3, 1891 The New York Times reported on a meeting in the Chamber of Commerce building.  “President Smith of the Chamber presided, and Cornelius N. Bliss presented a resolution providing for the appointment of a committee of ten, to have full power to secure the erection of an equestrian statue of heroic size.”

Before the adjournment of the meeting the committee had grown to 12; including well-known names like Depew, Schiff, Sloane and Dodge.  The group proposed that the statue should be unveiled on the anniversary of the General’s death—11 months away.  John H. Starin estimated the cost would be about $35,000; however Abram S. Hewitt was more realistic.

“Mr. Hewitt believed that any leading artist would need three years for the work, and that $50,000 would be none too much.”  Before the men left the room they had pledged $5,750 among them, deemed by The Times “a substantial start.”

The Sherman Statue Committee adopted a resolution that any surplus funds would be donated to the Sherman family.  It was a kind hearted thought; but seems to have embarrassed and, perhaps, offended the family.  On March 11, 1891 newspapers published an open letter from P. T. Sherman that said in part, “This letter being in the nature of an appeal to the public in our behalf, we wish to have it understood that my father left us well provided for, and therefore we must beg of you to rescind your resolution of Friday, March 6, that ‘the committee shall announce to the public that any surplus subscription to the statue shall be given to the family of Gen. Sherman.’”

By the time P. T. Sherman wrote his polite letter of refusal the amount pledged to the monument fund had reached $25,235—more than half of the required amount in only a week.  The family did have one request, however.  General Sherman had been highly pleased with the bust executed by Saint-Gaudens.  According to American National Biography Online, “As a result the family specifically requested that Saint-Gaudens be chosen to execute the memorial, as that was the general’s wish.”

Augustus Saint-Gaudens received the commission in 1892.  It would result in a superb piece of artwork and an aggravatingly-long process.   The unveiling that John Starin thought would take place in a year, and Abram Hewitt gave three years would drag on past the turn of the century.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens poses with his work-in-process.  photographer unknown, from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Saint-Gaudens had grander visions than an ordinary equestrian statue to a war hero.   Starting his work in Paris, he seemed never to be satisfied.  He worked, then reworked, then refined, then changed, then reworked his model.  Finally a plaster casting was completed.  It included an allegorical figure of the Angel of Victory.  By creating a grouping rather than a solitary statue Saint-Gaudens related a story rather than simply depicting another horse-riding hero.

In 1900, nine years after the project began, the plaster casting was exhibited at the Paris Exhibition, winning the Medal of Honor, its highest honor.  But still the artist was not content.  As art critic Helen Henderson related in her 1917 A Loiterer in New York, “Though he had exhibited it, Saint Gaudens did not consider it finished and revised it critically and changed it before it was shown again, for the first time in this country, at the Pan-American Exposition, of Buffalo.”
Saint-Gaudens (third from left) poses with his assistants before the completed plaster casting -- photograph reproduced by Life magazine March 15, 1948.
Now cast in bronze, the grouping received critical acclaim--not enough acclaim, however, to satisfy the artist.  He continued to obsess over details, changing and refining even as the Statue Committee and the city prepared for its placement.  The Outlook remarked “he designed, studied, modeled, altered, remodeled, and altered yet again, until it seemed to those who were waiting for the work to be finished that the sculptor would never be content.”

On March 18, 1902 the New-York Tribune reported that the site had been chosen.  “The statue will be put at the southeast entrance to Central Park, in the circle north of Fifty-ninth-st.  The exact spot is that occupied by the tulip bed.”

Park Commissioner Wilcox told reporters “It’s the very best site in all the city and right at the beginning of the park system, just as the Grant monument is at the other end.  There was a good deal of opposition to placing the statue away up on [Riverside Drive].”

The commissioner answered a question “as to whether there was likely to be any further delay.”  He suggested that the statue would be in place in May.”  The commissioner was being optimistic.

In announcing the chosen site, the newspaper mentioned that “The pedestal will be furnished by McKim, Mead & White.”  Like the public and the committee, Charles McKim, who was a friend of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, would suffer frustration.

Glenn Brown, writing in the Architectural Record, would later recall having lunch with McKim at the Cosmos Club.  “He opened the conversation by saying, ‘I am thankful Saint Gaudens and I have settled on the design of the base for the Sherman Statue.  My first idea was a high base something on the order of Colleoni, while Saint Gaudens wanted the figure only a few feet from the ground.  We have compromised, making it higher than he first wanted it and lower than my first idea.  I have made about fifteen hundred studies for this base and I am thankful that it has been settled.”

Brown said that the two had been at the table only about 30 minutes when McKim received a telegram.  “A curious expression crept over his face as he read the telegram to me: ‘Charles, that base is all wrong, Gus.’”

Nearly to the last minute Saint-Gaudens fretted over the details of his monument.  According to Glenn Brown, he joined the sculptor and Charles McKim “just before the Sherman Statue was unveiled,” spending three hours while the architect and artist “were discussing pro and con the minor details of the tone for bronze in the ornaments on the base to make it harmonize with the gilded statue and red granite base, and the question of leaving the sculptured earth on which the figures stood, as it was cut of red granite, or gilding it to go with the statue.”

Finally, as Memorial Day 1903 approached, plans for the unveiling were begun.   But even this caused controversy.  An expansive wooden grandstand was to be erected for dignitaries and others attending the unveiling.  In order to make room for the stands, two trees had to be removed.  Reaction from some was swift and harsh. 

An editorial in The New York Times on May 30, 1903 complained “Yesterday morning those who chanced to be in the neighborhood of the Plaza at the southeast corner of Central Park might have witnessed a very sad sight.   Because they were in the way of the hideous pine grand stand in front of the Sherman Statue, and lest they might detract from the assertiveness of that piece of sculpture, the Municipal Art Commission ordered two beautiful and vigorous young elms cut down, and cut down there were.”

A reader wrote a letter to The Times editor that opened “I hope to heaven that there will never be another memento or statue erected in New York if it involves the destruction of trees…It is a crying disgrace that such things can be.”

The grandstands for the unveiling wrapped around three sides of the monument.  In the background is the old Plaza Hotel.  photograph The Mail and Express Illustrated Saturday Magazine, June 6, 1903 (copyright expired)

The unveiling ceremony was appropriately lavish.  A parade of troops filed up Fifth Avenue from Washington Square to the plaza where a band greeted them with “The Star Spangled Banner.”  Among the dignitaries present were Governor Odell, Secretary of War Elihu Root, Archbishop Farley, and Mayor Seth Low.

The New-York Tribune reported “Just before the head of the column arrived at the statue the monument was unveiled, the flags which formed the drapery being removed by Master William T. Sherman Thackara, a grandson of the general.”

Kenyon Cox summed up the completed work succinctly:  “Saint Gaudens is one of those artists for whom it is worth while to wait.”

Indeed, the never-contented Saint-Gaudens had produced a distinctive and powerful sculptural group.  He gave Sherman an aura of nobility astride his steed, his cape lightly blowing behind him.  Just ahead of him strode Victory with an outstretched arm.  In her other hand she carried a palm frond.  The entire statue was brilliantly gilded. 

Henry James praised the statue despite the "vulgarity of its environment."  photograph by Wurts Bros. from the collection of the Museum of the City of New York

Perhaps only one among the crowd of applauding onlookers was unmoved.  A Southerner took in the statue and then sniffed, “Just like a Yankee, letting the lady walk.”

As with all public artwork, the draping had barely touched the ground before the critics made themselves known.   Outlook said it was “to be ranked among the half-dozen great equestrian statues of the world.”   The New York Times opined “Approached from any direction the monument catches the eye and stamps itself as a work of art out of the common” and agreed with Cox, saying “The delay in the erection of the statue caused by these later years of study has been vindicated.”

Helen Henderson judged it in 1917 saying that “In the Sherman equestrian group…St. Gaudens reached the high-water mark of his genius” and Henry James called it “splendid in its golden elegance.”

What Henderson appreciated in the art, she deprecated in its original setting, saying it stood “on the outskirts of the rather paradoxical, conglomerate apology for a square.”   But by the time she wrote the words, the “apology for a square” was a non-issue.

The will of millionaire publisher Joseph Pulitzer, who died in 1911, provided $50,000 for the erection of a fountain, a gift to the city “in a suitable place in Central Park, preferably near the Plaza entrance, the fountain to be as far as practicable like those in the Place de la Concorde in Paris.”  In 1913 plans were underway for the fountain and a remodeled square.

The firm of Carrere & Hastings was given the task of creating a European-style plaza that would encompass the Pulitzer Fountain to the south and the General Sherman Statue to the north.  To accomplish the formal alignment, the Sherman Statue was moved 16 feet to the west.  The completed plaza included stone balustrades, garden plots and “Oriental plane trees.”

Two vintage postcards show the statue in the Carrere & Hastings plaza.  The Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion is beyond the Pulitzer Fountain in the lower image.
A year after General Sherman was moved, it was time to move him again.   The proposed extension of the Broadway-Seventh Avenue subway line, which curved eastward toward the Queensboro Bridge, ran directly under the monument and Carrere & Hastings’s magnificent new plaza.  On June 28, 1914 The Sun reported “Saint Gaudens’s statue of Gen. Sherman at the Fifth avenue plaza entrance to Central Park probably will be missing from that spot for more than two years while the crosstown section of the Broadway-Seventh avenue subway is being constructed.”

“Probably” became “actually” and a year later large construction sheds sat on the site of the Sherman statue.   Although the contractor was given 29 months to finish the work, it would be years before the statue was reinstalled—the delays possibly caused by World War I.  When it did return, the beautiful plaza was wrecked and the statue was in less-than-pristine shape.

A letter to the editor of The New York Times from E. Andrews Lloyd on July 1, 1920 complained “All during the war this statue was hidden, and now that the temporary buildings around it have been removed it is still left with a broken down iron rail fence and the plot strewn with old cinders.

“This really magnificent statue is so grimed with smoke and dirt as to be almost recognizable, and its prominent location at the gateway of Central Park on Fifth Avenue makes it all the more conspicuous as a disgraceful exhibition of New York’s administration neglect.”

Within a year of Lloyd’s letter the area around the statue was re-landscaped, and then in 1923 the National Bulb Grower’s Association donated 40,000 flower bulbs for the Plaza Park.   It would be another 43 years, however, before the statue itself was given attention. 

In 1966 the figures and base were restored; and in 1989 the statue was regilded.   The latter process enraged art lovers and Central Park Conservancy members when the gilding was so flashy it prompted the publisher of Lear’s magazine to call it a “horror.”  When the glitzy brightness had not dimmed by 1996, a lightly-colored layer of wax was applied to soften it.  But by the 21st century pigeon droppings and weathering had seriously eroded the gold leaf. 

The statues were in deplorable shape before the 2011 restoration.  photo

In 2011 a restoration of the monument and the plaza was initiated.    The multi-year project included new pavement, benches, lighting and replacement of trees.   Art lovers held their breaths as the scaffolding came down from around the regilded Sherman Statue.

But the Central Park Conservancy had learned its lesson.   The Gilders’ Studio of Olney, Maryland used 23.75-karat gold leaf tinted with burnt umber and lampblack.  Repeated testing brought the tone as close as possible to that which Augustus Saint-Gaudens originally applied.  The entire project, completed in 2013, cost $2 million.
Today General Sherman has regained his 1903 nobility and, just like a Yankee, still makes the lady walk

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