The Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site is a beautiful spot nestled in the New Hampshire mountains, where the artist Augustus Saint-Gaudens summered and eventually settled permanently. The Park preserves his home, studio and displays full-size copies of some of his most famous works. I recently set out with the park as my destination. My wife wasn’t fully aware that I wanted to spend the better part of a beautiful fall day driving to an obscure place along the New Hampshire – Vermont border. She thought we were just going for a hike and picking some apples along the way.
I wanted to visit the site because it is the only National Historic Site in New Hampshire, and that meant I could check it off my list. It was my second attempt at getting there. Last year I had set out on another jaunt across New Hampshire, stopping at heirloom apple orchards and turning back 20 miles before reaching Cornish. This attempt looked like it was going to end up the same way. After purchasing a half a bushel of heirloom apples and hiking up Mount Kearsage, we stopped for hard cider and more heirloom apples at Poverty Hill Orchard. We climbed into the car and sped to the site.
The National Historic Site
The road from the orchard to the site follows the Connecticut River through gorgeous landscape. I kept noticing Historic Markers along the way, but it was approaching closing time and I wanted to actually have a chance to see the site. Once we arrived and parked, we flashed our Interagency Parks Pass and headed to the Visitor Center. Because of the late hour, the ranger recommended I skip the movie and head right for the buildings.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin in 1848 to a Irish mother and French father. His family emigrated to America during the Potato Famine, and settled in New York when Augustus was less than a year old. When he was older, he apprenticed with a cameo cutter and took art classes at night at Cooper Union. Once his apprenticeship ended, Saint-Gaudens travelled to Paris where he studied at the elite Ecole des Beaux-Arts.
While an apprentice, Saint-Gaudens witnessed America at war. He saw Union troops march by as they sang John Brown’s Body. He witnessed the violent New York draft riots. He heard Lincoln speak at Cooper Union around the time of his inauguration, and he viewed Lincoln’s body lying in state after his assassination. Saint-Gaudens held Abraham Lincoln in high regard, and that can be seen in the Standing Lincoln.
The National Historic Site recently installed a replica of the Standing Lincoln, one of Saint-Gaudens’ major works. The original stands in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. The human side of the great man shows in a perceived moment before he speaks. Robert Todd Lincoln said that this sculpture captured his father’s essence better than any he had seen.
A replica of Saint-Gauden’s monument to Admiral Farragut stands nearby. Unlike the Standing Lincoln, this monument has a copy of the full pedestal, so I could really get a sense of what the actual memorial in Manhattan looks like. I’ve been to Madison Square where the statue stands, but have no memory of the monument. I know the famous, “Damn the torpedo! Full steam ahead!” quote but did not know Farragut’s name or his important victory in the Civil War. I’ll remember Farragut now.
In the indoor gallery, the are many bas relief works, including a beautiful one honoring Robert Louis Stevenson. There’s a bust of William Tecumseh Sherman done in preparation for his memorial in Central Park, and some sweet turtle fountains. I spent most of my time here looking at the beautiful gold coins that Saint-Gaudens designed for the US Mint. The signage said these were some of the most beautiful coins in US history. I’d agree, and certainly put them higher on the list than the current “gold” President coins. (Those coins look like video game tokens in comparison to the Saint-Gauden’s gold pieces. I can’t see dumping a stack of these into a Galaga game at the arcade.) I love the use of the classical, mythic female figure of Liberty and the natural symbol of America, the Eagle, on the reverse. This is a constant in Saint-Gauden’s work. He brings in classical elements and symbolism, elevating the stature of the subjects to a mythic status.
As I headed toward Saint-Gauden’s studio, I walked through a gorgeous double row of birch trees, The light was perfect, and filtered through the yellow leaves. At the end of the row, I had a striking view of Mount Ascutney in the distance. The view with the trees and far off mountain reminded me of Maxfield Parrish’s landscapes, and I remembered that the highway we drove in on was named the Maxfield Parrish Highway. When Saint Gaudens settled in Cornish, he attracted other artists to the area. Maxfield Parrish was one of the artists in the circle of artists.
Saint Gauden’s large studio burned in 1904, destroying many works in progress and his correspondence, but he and his students used the smaller studio space near the house. The centerpiece on display here is the Diana. Saint-Gauden’s only nude female statue, the larger original stood illuminated on the top of the Madison Square Garden – a golden gleaming naked woman making all of Victorian New York uncomfortable.
There is a small room set up to look like a working studio. Two huge horse heads, several little plaster heads, and tools of the trade are spread along the table. I set off the alarm trying to take a picture. (Or maybe it was the park visitors who brought their Schnauzer into all the museum buildings.)The Park has a sculptor in residence program, and their studio was set in the woods. I tried to peek in there, without disturbing the artist at work. Their work space looked a little different. No plaster horse heads and lots of plastic sheeting and buckets.
In a labyrinth of hedges outside the studio, there are copies of two other important works – the Adams Memorial and the Shaw Memorial. I had never seen the Adams Memorial before, and it is a quiet somber memorial to Clover Adams, the wife of Henry Adams. Clover committed suicide and Adams wanted the memorial to capture the essence of nirvana, and the figure gives the sense of quiet contemplation of life and death.
The Robert Gould Shaw Memorial took 14 years to complete, and is considered by many to be his finest work. Colonel Shaw is depicted on horseback, sword drawn, riding along side his men, the African American 54th Massachusetts Regiment. The men are each individuals, and one has the impression of the entire regiment marching together. Above them all, a female figure (Victory?) floats. Again, it is the mythic female figure that gives the memorial a higher meaning – these are more than just men going off to fight a war. They have a higher, sacred purpose. Seeing the monument, in this quiet space, is almost more powerful than viewing it in Boston where the traffic crawls by inches away. Commerce reigns, not their noble victory depicted here.
After my tour, I met up with my wife and the dog (Our boy’s first National Park!) and we walked the trails. My wife was backtracking since she had already taken the dog over most of this trail. As we hiked down the steep ravine to the stream, our boy sniffed the stumps and got his feet wet in the stream. The leaves were at peak color and most of the plants had begun to fade. The variety of ferns growing along the bank impressed me. The trails must be full of wildflowers in spring.
With the dog fully soaked, we walked back to the parking lot. Along the way, we were treated to more Maxfield Parrish-esque landscape views. Right before leaving the park, I caught another glimpse of the Standing Lincoln. It struck me that Saint-Gauden’s story mirrors the immigrant story we like to believe – a poor family comes to this country to find a better life. Their son goes on to become a great American, and through his work honors the lives of other great Americans. Given our current political climate, Saint-Gauden’s story is relevant and important to remember.