Augustus Saint–Gaudens (1848–1907) and Daniel Chester French (1850–1931) were the preeminent American sculptors of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As friendly rivals, they transformed the nation’s sculpture in an age of massive industrial growth and cultural reorganization. With an aesthetic of remarkable formal elegance, they produced many of the nation’s best–known monuments, creating a picture of national ambition rooted in conceptions of liberty, grandeur, and common cause.
The narratives of an ascendant America conveyed by their works, however, reflect only a partial vision of the nation. Dependent on commissions from those in political or cultural power, Saint–Gaudens and French often produced sculptures that told a privileged story—one that, whether intentionally or not, obfuscated growing social inequities. Beyond their didactic power, the works are rife with the potential for multiple meanings and contested histories, encouraging us to question the stories that public art tells and to explore what—and whose—histories remain hidden from view.
Drawn primarily from the collections of the artists’ historic homes and studios, Monuments and Myths is the first exhibition to bring together Saint–Gaudens and French in this way, probing their intersecting biographies and examining the affinities that made both of them leaders in their field. As we collectively refocus our attention on the role and meaning of historic monuments, it is a timely moment to ponder the continuing power of these artists’ sculpture and to examine how it has shaped—and continues to inform—our understanding of America.