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A sculpture in every pocket

The money museum hosts the work of Augustus Saint-Gaudens


There's an inconspicuous museum tucked away beneath towering trees on Cascade Avenue that has been a favorite to coin collectors for years.

But only recently have art lovers discovered that the American Numismatic Association Money Museum provides manna to the artistic community as well, attracting outstanding art exhibitions from across the country. This time, the money museum has secured the rich and extensive exhibit Augustus Saint-Gaudens: American Sculptor of the Gilded Age, running from Aug. 28 through Oct. 26.

The obvious attraction to the Saint-Gaudens exhibit for the Numismatic Museum was his work and influence on American coinage, yet the vast 75-piece collection displays the full range of the sculptor's talent. Including cameos, relief portraits, reductions of outdoor commissions, full-sized works cast in bronze and decorative objects, the collection is so large, in fact, that the money museum enlisted the help of the Fine Arts Center (just a few paces around the corner) to help display the entire collection.

It is difficult to overestimate the artistic and cultural influence of Saint-Gaudens in America following the Civil War, and if such a thing as an "American Michelangelo" were possible, Saint-Gaudens fits the role. At a time when sculpture as an art form was stagnant in America, Saint-Gaudens revitalized the art with a new spirit inspired by classic tradition. Like many of the great masters of the Renaissance, he began his training early, at the age of 13, as an apprentice for a cameo cutter. His parents recognized his ability and sent Augustus to the Ecole des Beaux Artes in France where he received a classical training.

Saint-Gaudens first achieved a national reputation for his Civil War monuments. Two of the more famous -- the Farragut Monument (1881) in Madison Square Park and the Shaw Memorial (1908), located at the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, in Cornish, New Hampshire -- are represented in the collection. A tremendous plaster bust of Admiral David Glasgow Farragut shows the sculptor's ability to work realistically in large scale, evoking both earnestness and character. On a smaller scale, the five heads for the Shaw Memorial, modeled from life, show a broad range of age and character, which Saint-Gaudens achieves with eerie realism.

Many of the bronze statues in the exhibit are reductions of original pieces; The Pilgrim is one of the more evocative. Saint-Gaudens carefully researched one of the early founders of the Massachusetts Colony, Deacon Samuel Chapin (1595-1675), and represented him exquisitely. The dramatic gesture of the figure -- cane in one hand, Bible in the other and protruding potbelly -- exudes a frightful moral rectitude and seriousness with no shortage of irony.

There is another, more accessible legacy of Saint-Gaudens, however. It is the tiny sculptures found on the American coins he designed in the early 20th century. President Theodore Roosevelt, impressed by Saint-Gaudens's design for an inaugural medal dedicated to his election in 1904, enlisted the sculptor to design the $10 and $20 gold pieces. Saint-Gaudens's design for the $20 coin, a walking lady-Liberty with torch held aloft, broke the monotony of earlier American coin design and the design for the $10 piece, Liberty sporting an Indian headdress, was the first to incorporate Native American themes.

These hugely popular coins engendered a pattern of similar designs that presented Liberty more creatively and relied on unmistakable American icons. Saint-Gaudens' students and assistants went on to design the "Buffalo Nickel," the "Half- and Quarter-Eagles," the "Mercury Dime," the "walking Liberty Half-Dollar," and the "Washington Quarter."

It is a rare opportunity to see so much of an artist's opus assembled in one exhibit, and the scope of Saint-Gaudens work is remarkable. This stop is the farthest west the collection will travel and is the only stop in Colorado.

-- Aaron Menza

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