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Local Treasure: Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site

Local Treasure: Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site
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William Tecumseh Sherman looks as though he hasn’t slept in 36 hours. His brow is sagging and creased, his eyes are swollen, and it’s unclear whether the scraggly beard on his chin is something he grew intentionally. His tie is noticeably askew, but, so the story goes, when Augustus Saint-Gaudens asked him to straighten it, he replied, “The general of the army of the United States will wear his coat any damn way he pleases.” So that’s how Saint-Gaudens sculpted it.

The bust sits in a small gallery at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site on a sun-drenched hillside in Cornish, New Hampshire. It’s one of only two National Park Service properties dedicated to visual artists, and it’s clear why it ranks: Few sculptors did more to define America’s national aesthetic than did Saint-Gaudens.

Saint-Gaudens came of age at a time when Americans were eagerly building monuments to the heroes of the Civil War. The nation was awash in sculptures of men on horses, but Saint-Gauden’s pieces rose to the top. He portrayed his subjects as soldiers, not gods, bringing a level of realism to his work rarely before seen in American sculpture. Buttons were left undone, hair unkempt, beards unshaven. His Abraham Lincoln: The Man in Chicago portrays the president standing, with eyes downcast. He looks pensive, even troubled. It’s arguably the most honest portrayal of Lincoln we have.

Though many of Saint-Gaudens’ works are installed in busy municipal parks around the country, their prototypes were crafted at his idyllic New Hampshire estate, where the National Historic Site now resides. “Cornish was his safe haven in America,” explains Henry Duffy, the property’s curator. “He worked well in the quiet of the place, the peace of it.”

The site offers visitors the unique experience of viewing the artist’s works in the same peaceful setting where they were conceived. The effect is most striking with the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial. Most know the work as the monument on the congested corner across from the Massachusetts State House in Boston, but in Cornish you’ll find it in an outdoor gallery on a manicured lawn rimmed by a hemlock hedge. Duffy says it’s one of the site’s most pleasant surprises: “People don’t expect to find it in New Hampshire, but at least here when you see it, you don’t have to dodge buses and cars.”

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