It is no secret among numismatists that Saint-Gaudens influenced, and in many cases, constructed the face of many of the United States’ most popular coins. What is less common knowledge perhaps is his life outside the coin circle. What follows here is a brief biography of one of the greatest sculptors in modern history.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1848 to a French shoemaker and an Irish housewife. His family immigrated to New York City shortly after he was born.
At thirteen, Saint-Gaudens left school to pursue an apprenticeship with a cameo-cutter. While he served his apprenticeship, the young boy took classes at both the National Academy of Design and the Cooper Union. After turning 19, he completed his schooling in New York and moved to Paris to study with François Jouffroy at the École des Beaux-Arts. At 22, Saint-Gaudens travelled to Rome to study classic architecture.
Return to America
In 1876, Saint-Gaudens returned to New York City to begin work on the first of his many Civil War commissions, a statue of Admiral David Farragut in Madison Square.
1877 saw his marriage to Augusta Fisher Homer, a student from Roxbury, Massachusetts whom he met while studying in Italy. Homer and Saint-Gaudens had one son, named Homer, born in 1880. He also fathered a child in 1889 with his mistress, Davida Clark.
Throughout the 1880s and 1890s, Saint-Gaudens completed some of his most memorable work including a copper statue of Diana and the first of his two bronze monuments to President Abraham Lincoln, the head of the second which was later used as the artwork for a commemorative postage stamp in 1909, the centennial anniversary of Lincoln’s birth.
Saint-Gaudens was chosen in the early 1900s by President Theodore Roosevelt to redesign the certain of the nation’s coins. Because his early relief work (a type of three-dimensional art wherein images are either raised or lowered from a plane) was constructed in the form of medallions, Saint-Gaudens’s was a “shoo-in.” While Saint-Gaudens died before he could complete the task, he was able to create what many consider the most beautiful coin ever minted: the Double Eagle, minted from 1905-1907. The obverse of this design would later be reprised in the American Gold Eagle and Silver Eagle coins.
When Saint-Gaudens was diagnosed with cancer in 1900, he decided to move to his summer home in Cornish, New Hampshire permanently. There he lived out his remaining years continuing to produce work. Something of an artist colony supported him in his final years with such famous members as Maxfield Perish, Thomas Dewing, and Saint-Gaudens’s sculptor brother, Louis. Augustus Saint-Gaudens died on August 3, 1907.