The history of man can be found on his coins, my late mentor, Dutch numismatist Hans M F Schulman, used to say. And no coins display history better than those created between 1793 and 1945.
I want to tell the story of one such coin – the Double Eagle $20 gold coin of 1907 – and the sculptor who created it, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907).
This Double Eagle – which commands about $32,000 today on eBay – is graced with a relief of Liberty in the form of a goddess with flowing hair and equally fluid drapery, moving through a sunburst toward us, a torch held high in her right hand, an olive branch in her left. President Theodore Roosevelt commissioned the design, which many collectors still consider one of the finest ever to appear on a coin. But though Saint-Gaudens created it, the design was actually reworked by U.S. Mint chief engraver Charles E. Barber, who lowered the relief.
If the figure on the coin looks familiar, it’s because it’s similar to the gilded statue of Winged Victory leading Civil War Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman on his horse at Grand Army Plaza, Fifth Avenue and 59th Street, right near The Plaza Hotel and Central Park. The golden group, a full expression of the marriage of realism and allegory, was installed in 1903. The pedestal is by architect Charles McKim, who with Stanford White and their firm (McKim, Mead and White) shaped much of Beaux Arts New York.
White, perhaps not so coincidentally, was a friend of Saint-Gaudens, who was born in Ireland and raised in New York City, where he began an impeccable artistic education that included the National Academy of Design and Cooper Union in Manhattan and the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Though he is famed for his artistic treatment of women, including the bronze Diana in The Met’s American Wing and the moving Adams Memorial at Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington D.C. – my personal favorites are all of extraordinary men whose contributions to American history are still studied today.
The first is his memorial to Adm. David Glasgow Farragut, a professional sailor from age 9 and personal friend of Ulysses S. Grant. It was a highly sought after public commission and Saint-Gaudens’ first. The artist replaced the classical ideal of the figure with one of Farragut that appears to be facing the wind on the quarter deck of the USS Hartford in the middle of the Battle of Mobile Bay in 1864, shouting the words that are now remembered as, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead.” The statue is mounted on a base designed by both the artist and Stanford White.
The next is his bronze Boston relief tribute to Robert Gould Shaw, the abolitionist colonel who died leading the all-black Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment against the Confederates in the second Battle of Fort Wagner, S.C. in 1863. (Their story is told in the moving 1989 film, “Glory.”) This piece took Saint-Gaudens more than 14 years to create it. He made 40 abstracted busts of the individual soldiers before creating the finished piece in three-quarter view. It’s a masterpiece of expressiveness.
A close third to this, in my view, is his massive New York monument to inventor/manufacturer/philanthropist Peter Cooper. Saint-Gaudens did 27 sketches before the final composition while White designed the base and canopy.
I think his most creative work, however, remains the Sherman memorial and the 1907 coin. Take a look at both when you have a chance. I think once you do you’ll agree that coins and sculpture are both more than relief-deep.