I am still surprised when I dig deeply into the narrative of a well-known male artist and discover a revelatory role that his wife played in the couple’s overall story. This is the case of Augusta Fisher Homer Saint-Gaudens, who was married to the most famous American sculptor of his time, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907).
I knew little about this couple until I became friends with a later generation family member who piqued my interest in the Saint-Gaudens family and the Cornish, NH. art colony. Essays in a book titled Significant Others: Creativity and Intimate Partnership consider the complexities of visual artists’ marriages that necessitate collaborative relationships, as opposed to a solitary life of an individual artist. The contributors conclude that creative couples either reinvent or create new roles for themselves within such a marriage. Regarding British artist Vanessa Bell, a friend and literary critic called her “the unwobbling pivot of Bloomsbury,” a loosely-knit group of London intellectuals and artists in the early 20th century.1
It is no wonder that Mrs. Saint-Gaudens was known as “Gussie,” because even the couple’s housekeeper was named Augusta! Augusta Homer was born into a well-to-do mercantile family in Roxbury, MA. She was sent to Rome to study painting and met Augustus Saint-Gaudens in 1873 when he was already a known American sculptor. He was descended from immigrants, a French shoemaker and an Irish seamstress, and it has been said that Augustus Saint-Gaudens “married up.” 2
The couple moved to Paris, where they rented an apartment overlooking the Luxembourg Gardens as his artistic reputation continued to rise. There they interacted with other American artists with whom he would later collaborate, including the architect Stanford White. In Paris, Gussie polished her husband’s handsome appearance and instructed him in the social skills that would serve him well with future sophisticated clients. When she became pregnant, the couple returned to America and settled in New York City, where he completed his first of over 150 major sculptures. The Admiral David Glasgow Farragut statue, his first public commission, stands in Madison Square in New York. Their only child, Homer Shiff Saint-Gaudens (1880-1953), was born in New York and he, too, became a sculptor.
It was the practice in late 19th century America for successful artists, their students, and other creatives to seek refuge during the summer months in picturesque settings far from the stifling density of cities. On an invitation from a friend, Augustus Saint-Gaudens chose to settle in Cornish, NH., in a silvan, wooded topography near the town of Dublin, where the shadows of two mountains, Mt. Ascutney and Mt. Monadnock, provided a bucolic ambience for creativity and esoteric merriment that recalled the sophisticated artistic communes of Europe. What set Cornish and Dublin apart from the usual traditions of art colonies is that they did not seek to create an art association, to appeal to the tourist trade, or to hold an annual summer exhibition. Rather, these Cornish colonists sought loftier camaraderie “from within” that focused on classical Renaissance antecedents of idealized feminine beauty and landscape. In this setting, they held now-famous tableaux; formal compositions where costumed intelligentsia acted in plays surrounded by nature. On a sweeping lawn, the most famous Cornish theatrical performance, held in 1905, was known as “A Masque of ‘Ours’: The Gods and the Golden Bowl.”
Cornish became well known and ever more popular for its diverse residents and famous visitors lured to the colony by the Saint-Gaudenses. The couple renovated an existing house on the acreage, and many acquaintances followed them, establishing homes in both Cornish and Dublin. Some of the acclaimed figures were artists Thomas A. Dewing, Abbott Thayer, Kenyon Cox, Maxfield Parrish, George de Forest Brush, Rockwell Kent, Charles Dana Gibson, and later the modernists William and Marguerite Zorach and Everette and Florence Scovel Shinn. Frederick Remington, famous painter and sculptor of the American West, visited Cornish, as well.3
The retreat also attracted musicians, architects (notably Charles Adams Platt who designed several Cornish houses), Admiral Byrd, literary and publishing figures, and scientists who came by train from not-so-distant New York and Boston. President Theodore Roosevelt visited Cornish because of his friendship with Saint-Gaudens, President and Mrs. Wilson (his second wife) spent a few summers there, and Rudyard Kipling, Mark Twain, and Witter Bynner participated in the colony. Even film star Ethel Barrymore visited Cornish. Many sculpture assistants of Saint-Gaudens surrounded him there as well. Gussie’s sister Margaret Homer and her husband Dr. Arthur Nichols, of Boston, built a house where their three daughters spent idyllic summers in Cornish. Their daughter Rose Nichols, a favorite of her uncle, became a renowned pacifist and landscape architect. As time passed, numerous families became year-round residents called “chickadees,” and they began to enjoy winter sports. Thomas Dewing and his artist wife Marie Oakley Dewing fled their Cornish home to Maine after a tennis court was built, soon to be followed by a golf course nearby. Stephen Parrish, patriarch of the talented Parrish clan threatened to plant poison ivy at his studio door in order to deter visitors.4
Saint-Gaudens set up his sculpture studio where he would produce his legendary work, surrounded by assistants and students whom he had formerly taught at the Art Students League in New York. Gussie set aside her own artistic leanings to oversee their household, and soon she was handling her husband’s global correspondence, overseeing fabrication of his sculptures, and arranging high-quality reproductions of his work.5 In short, Gussie Saint-Gaudens became the “unwobbling pivot” of Cornish.
Gussie was also becoming increasingly deaf, a malady that plagued her from an early age and likely prompted observers to call her a difficult person. She was also described as having “formal habits’” and a temper. Gussie did not enjoy interaction with the other colonists, preferring outside visitors and social companions.6
Gussie experienced miscarriages while raising their young son, but these hurdles were miniscule compared to what she learned in the early 1890s when she discovered that her husband had carried on an illicit, 20-year affair with his Swedish model whom he renamed Davida Clark, and with whom he had a child, Louis Clark. For a considerable amount of time, Saint-Gaudens had complained that Gussie was uninterested in him or his friends.7 Upon this revelation, Gussie Saint-Gaudens took control of her own life and distanced herself from her husband, a rare rebuke of social expectations in her time. As a young artist of landscapes and portraits as well as sculpture, Gussie had studied the Old Masters in Italy and remembered her joy of travel. Thirty of her paintings survive today in Cornish, but with a troubled marriage at this stage of her life, she had no interest in renewing an art career.
While the couple never divorced, their amicable correspondence and contact remained unwavering. Gussie had begun to travel after their son’s birth as a relief to the increasing deafness and ringing in her ears. Travel became her passion as her personality and burgeoning fortitude emerged. She became an independent and intrepid traveler to exotic places like the Arctic Circle, Norway, Spain, North Africa, Germany and other countries. She kept copious annotated Baedeker travel guides that record her unconventional transportation methods, including riding camelback in the Sahara. In addition to Europe and the Middle East, Gussie explored California and the American Southwest. Throughout this strained marital period, Gussie maintained the couple’s New York townhouse and they spent time together in the summers in Cornish. The couple even planned to travel together to Spain once again.
Another dramatic turn came in 1900 when Augustus was diagnosed with cancer. At the very height of his career, Gussie reunited with her husband and they moved permanently to Cornish. They were able to make the planned trip to Spain in 1905, and that same year the residents of Cornish celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Saint-Gaudenses’ founding of the Cornish art colony. A tableaux (referred to earlier: “A Masque of ‘Ours’: The Gods and the Golden Bowl”) was performed and Augustus was presented with a brass bowl honoring his contributions to Cornish. He was grateful that Augusta’s name was inscribed alongside his name on the bowl.8
As Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s health continued to fail, he depended only on Gussie for his care and refused to see other people, including his son. He died in Cornish on August 3, 1907, and his ashes were prepared in his studio and interred in Cornish. Gussie, in her widely-admired devotion to her husband, soon began to center all her energies on shaping and preserving his international reputation. After his death, Gussie also built a home in Coconut Grove, FL, where she and her husband had previously spent winters. Unlike her anti-social manners in Cornish, many Floridians remember her fondly as “a doyenne of society” and she annually opened the social season by driving down the main thoroughfare of the affluent enclave in her open-air Pierce Arrow. 9
Gussie Saint-Gaudens’s keen business acumen served her well as she tirelessly shaped her husband’s legacy. Her responsibilities included, among other things, marketing high-quality reproductions of his small bronzes and reliefs that gave his assistants income and provided her with a handsome profit.10 She oversaw his assistants’ work in finishing his committed commissions, and placed his works in major museums throughout the country. She worked with her husband’s close friend and fellow sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) to organize a retrospective exhibition of Saint-Gaudens works at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The 154 sculptural works in the exhibition opened in 1908 and traveled to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Carnegie Institute of Art in Pittsburgh, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the John Herron Art Institute in Indianapolis.11
Periodically along her devoted journey, Gussie’s formidable personality again showed as she attempted to block McClure’s magazine’s editor, Willa Cather, from publishing her husband’s personal letters to his favorite niece, Rose Nichols. And she even sought to convince the architect of the Lincoln Memorial in the nation’s capital, Henry Bacon, to replace the already-contracted Seated Lincoln by Daniel Chester French with her husband’s famous Standing Lincoln that is located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park. Gussie’s persuasive powers were ignored in that instance, but she made one final decision that assured both her husband’s and her own cultural legacies.
In 1919, Gussie and son Homer Saint-Gaudens willed their estate to its board of trustees, and the New Hampshire legislature chartered the Memorial as a non-profit corporation “to preserve and exhibit the collections, house, and studios.” 12 In 1965 the property was deeded to the National Park Service, and today the US Department of Interior operates the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park that includes the interpretation of its history and provides nature studies and recreation. Augusta Fisher Homer Saint-Gaudens’s unparalleled significance was lost for more than 100 years until recently, when the staff of the Park re-introduced Gussie’s importance to the overall story and restored her as an important collaborator in her famous husband’s career and the history of Cornish.
Research has revealed that Gussie worked on only one of Saint-Gaudens’ hundreds of sculptures when she still considered herself an artist early in their marriage. She molded clothing details on his Admiral Farragut statue. But more importantly, Gussie Saint-Gaudens unrelentingly molded a far different and significant monument. As Fine Art Connoisseur magazine has stated: “Her greatest efforts were reserved for the preservation of the Cornish property.”13 The 2019 National Park Service catalogue restores Gussie’s role and best states the obvious: “Begun out of love, the Memorial today has developed into an organization devoted to preserving the legacy of Augustus Saint-Gaudens and to fostering the arts and culture generally. Finding ways to join contemporary art with the spirit of the past has kept the artist’s name alive and honors the dedication of a remarkable woman whose personal growth may yet be the greatest legacy of all.” 14
My friend and painter extraordinaire Charles Shurcliff is that later generation Saint-Gaudens family member and has enjoyed Cornish for his entire life. I am grateful to him for gifting me his mother’s privately published memoir of her days in Cornish: Margaret Homer Shurcliff, Lively Days: Some Memoirs of Margaret Home Shurcliff, 1965. It has given me personal insight into the glory days of Cornish.
John Singer Sargent, Portrait of a Boy (Homer Saint-Gaudens and His Mother), 1890. Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.
- Whitney Chadwick & Isabelle de Courtivron, Introduction, Significant Others: Creativity & Intimate Partnership, New York: Thames & Hudson, Inc., pages 7-12, and Lisa Tickner, p.65.
- Henry J. Duffy and Kathryn Greenthal, Augusta Homer Saint-Gaudens: Stepping Out of the Shadows [exhibition catalogue], Ossining, New York: Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park [ASG – Publication-2019 pdf], 2019, p. 5.
- Among many married women artists in Cornish were Louise Howland Cox, a portrait painter of children; Edith Mitchill Prellwitz, a painter; Annette Johnson St. Gaudens, a sculptor married to Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s brother, also a sculptor [to differentiate himself, Louis St. Gaudens used the abbreviation “St” for his name]; and Carlota Dolley Saint-Gaudens, a miniaturist and wife of Homer. Other women artists joined including Frances Grimes, a sculptor and favorite student and assistant of Saint-Gaudens and Anne Parrish, cousin of Maxfield Parrish, a painter, author of children’s books, and a philanthropist. A Circle of Friends: Art Colonies of Cornish and Dublin, University of New Hampshire and Keen State College, 1985.
- Ibid, p. 69.
- Augusta Saint Gaudens: Stepping Out of the Shadows, p. 5.
- Frances Grimes, “Reminiscences,” A Circle of Friends, p. 70.
- Stepping Out of the Shadows, p. 7.
- Ibid, p. 20.
- Ibid, p. 24.
- Gussie Saint-Gaudens oversaw copyrights and marking of her husband’s original lifetime works to differentiate them from recasts, a professional practice that greatly benefited future collectors and curators.
- Augustus Saint-Gaudens had significantly contributed to the planning of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago and to the McMillan Commission of 1901-1902 to implement the original 1791 city plan for Washington, D.C., by Pierre L’Enfant.
- Saint-Gaudens, brochure for the National Historic Site/New Hampshire: The Home, Studios, and Gardens of an Important American Sculptor, National Park Service, US Department of Interior, Washington, D.C., 1993.
- Henry J. Duffy and Thayer Tolles, “The Saint-Gaudens Memorial Turns 100,” Fine Art Connoisseur, May/June 2019, p. 98.
- Stepping Out of the Shadows, p. 25.