This penetrating portrait bust was made by the most celebrated American sculptor of the second half of the nineteenth-century, Augustus Saint-Gaudens and depicts the Unionist general William Tecumseh Sherman. The result of eighteen sittings, each lasting about two hours, Saint-Gauden’s portrait of Sherman was one of his most vigorous and naturalistic works and widely celebrated by contemporaries. Completed by 1888 the bust went on to form the basis for a larger and more ambitious project: the Sherman Monument commissioned in 1892 and unveiled in 1903 in Manhattan’s Grand Army Plaza at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-ninth street. Crisply rendered in plaster the present bust was almost certainly used by Saint-Gaudens in the complex process of working the bust into a full-scale equestrian sculpture.
By 1888 Sherman was one of the most famous figures in post-Civil War America. Venerated by the Union and reviled by the Confederacy, Sherman was a brilliant, if controversial tactician. During his rapid – and destructive – ‘March to the Sea’, in 1864, he moved his army three hundred miles across Georgia in twenty-four days. He was called ‘the most original genius of the American Civil War’ and ‘the first modern general’ by the military historian B. H. Liddell Hart. Following the war, in 1866, Sherman was promoted to Lieutenant General and he succeeded General Ulysses S. Grant as commander of the United States army in 1869. He retired in 1884, a national hero, who vehemently resisted politics, stating: ‘if nominated I will not accept; if elected I will not serve.’
Sherman took up residence in New York. According to his biographer, Lloyd Lewis, Sherman was vocal on the subject of ‘being pestered with damned sculptors’, adamantly refusing to pose for his bust. Saint-Gaudens finally secured Sherman’s consent through the persuasive mediation of Whitelaw Reid, the editor of the New York Tribune. In the Reminiscences, Saint-Gaudens called his bust of Sherman: ‘a labor of love, for the General had remained in my eyes as the typical American soldier ever since I had formed that idea of him during the Civil War.’ Saint-Gaudens depicts Sherman with remarkable frankness and naturalism, capturing his heavily creased brow, stubbly beard and unbuttoned collar.
Saint-Gaudens left an account of the sittings: ‘he talked freely and most delightfully of the war, men and things. I can only recall the pride with which he spoke, the force of his language and the clear picture he presented as he described the appearance of his army in the great review at Washington when the final campaign was over. He explained how the other divisions, or armies, cleaned themselves up, so to speak, for this grand event, and of replying to some one who asked him if he was not going to do the same: ‘by no means. Let them be seen as they fought.’ The General was an excellent sitter, except when I passed to his side to study the profile. Then he seemed uneasy. His eyes followed me alertly. And if I went too far around, his head turned too, very much, some one observed, as if he was watching out for his ‘communications from the rear.’ This probably goes some way to explain Sherman’s erect posture and alert expression.
An anecdote printed in the Santa Barbara Free Press in 1924 suggests that Saint-Gaudens urged Sherman to button his jacket and straighten his tie. This seems unlikely, as it is precisely the informality of Saint-Gaudens’s depiction of Sherman, his unkept beard, unbuttoned tunic and tie askew, which underscore the psychological penetration of the portrait. Saint-Gaudens depicts Sherman as a determined war-time leader, unconscious of his appearance. Sherman’s beard, lean face and fixed expression may also have reminded Saint-Gaudens of the famous bronze bust in the Capitoline Museum of the legendary founder of Rome, Lucius Junius Brutus.
The status of plaster
In common with most late nineteenth-century sculptors, Saint-Gaudens used plaster as a medium for sketching, refining and repeating his compositions. Saint-Gaudens was notorious for his restless reworking of sculptural commissions and plaster was at the heart of his creative process. After modelling in clay, Saint-Gaudens would resize in plaster so that it could be carved into marble or cast in bronze. As with other sculptors of the period, such as Auguste Rodin, Saint-Gaudens’ direct involvement with his designs ended at the plaster cast: craftsmen did his carving and founders his casting.
Plaster was also a creative medium, occupying an important place in Saint-Gaudens’ creation of his most celebrated compositions. For the costume of the figures in some of his works Saint-Gaudens would drape a clay or plaster model in actual cloth to achieve a naturalistic arrangement. Sometimes he would take this method further, pouring plaster over the fabric so that it was incorporated into the model. Saint-Gaudens often worked in wet plaster, refining his designs further between the clay model and the finished work.
Plaster casts were important products of Saint-Gaudens’s atelier. For works that were intended to be cast in bronze, such as the Sherman bust, the plaster casts were essentially the only iterations of the composition specifically produced by Saint-Gaudens without the outside intervention of professional technicians. They were accordingly valued by Saint-Gaudens and his circle; it is notable that Sherman’s daughter, Eleanor Thakara, commissioned a plaster version of the bust which she left to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
As with the majority of his contemporaries, Saint-Gaudens viewed patinated plasters as finished, autonomous works of art. The present bust seems almost certainly to have been an early, studio cast. The wet plaster has been stamped with the Atelier stamp on the right shoulder and the bust carefully shellacked to protect the porous surface of the plaster and give it a consistent finish. It is possible that this version was retained in Saint-Gaudens’s studio for use in the completion of the Sherman Monument, which may explain the pencil inscription on the lower right: ‘1888/19’. If this is an indication of casting date, this would make this perhaps the only cast of the bust made in Sherman’s lifetime.
Dryfhout lists 10 iterations of the Sherman bust in both bronze and plaster. These include the four bronze versions in public collections (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; United States Military Academy, West Point, New York; Bronx Community College Hall of Fame, New York and Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire) as well as one in a private collection. Of the known plasters two are recorded at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, New Hampshire and one at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Dryfhout lists a version at the Fogg Art Museums, Harvard, but no such plaster is recorded in the museum collection. It seems likely that the present bust is one listed by Dryfhout in a Private Collection in Palisades, New York.
Saint-Gaudens’s bust of Sherman took on considerable significance following the sitter’s death in 1891. Saint-Gaudens was awarded the commission for an equestrian statue of the general to be erected in New York at the bottom of Central Park. Saint-Gaudens inevitably turned to his plaster bust of Sherman and used it as the basis for his model. The sculpture was begun in his New York studio, continued in Paris and finished in Cornish, New Hampshire. The clay model was resized using Robert Treat Paine’s device for mechanical enlargement of sculpture and the full-sized plaster was shown at the Exposition Universelle of 1900. The final bronze was cast by Thiebault Brothers in Paris. In December 1902 the finished bronze arrived back in New York, they were shipped to Cornish, New Hampshire, where Saint-Gaudens tried various heights for the base and experimented with gilding.
The gilt-bronze figure of Sherman being led by the winged figure of Victory on its McKim, Mead and White designed base was unveiled on 30th May 1903. Placed in Grand Army Plaza opposite the Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue and Fifty-ninth street. It remains one of the most enduring sculptural monuments in Manhattan.
The success of the monument prompted Saint-Gaudens to complete an edition of heads of the figure of Victory, known as Second Study for the Head of Victory. This popular model is known in multiple versions in both plaster and bronze. The figure proved so popular that following Saint-Gauden’s death, his widow produced gilded bronze reductions of the full-figure. An example of this posthumous reproduction made over $2m in 2017.
Sherman’s robust life-size likeness is among the most consummately realistic of Saint-Gaudens’s portraits, its plaster surface tactile, fluid, and practically pulsating with detail, from the furrowed brows and weathered face to the hard-set jaw. This extraordinary bust sheds fascinating light on the working practices of one of the most important sculptors of the late nineteenth century. Plaster, as a medium, is gradually being reassessed by scholars and collectors, who appreciate its centrality to the process of producing exhibition works.
- Lloyd Lewis, Sherman: Fighting Prophet, New York, 1932, p.646, quoted in Burke Wilkinson, Uncommon Clay: The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens, Orlando, 1985, p.178.
- Ed. Homer Saint-Gaudens, The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, New York, 1913, vol.I, p.378.
- Ed. Homer Saint-Gaudens, The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, New York, 1913, vol.I, p.381.
- Repeated by Burke Wilkinson, Uncommon Clay: The Life and Works of Augustus Saint Gaudens, Orlando, 1985, p.182.