Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Howard Pyle on Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial

This past July 18th was the 150th anniversary of the Second Battle of Fort Wagner. In 1883, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was commissioned to create a sculpture honoring the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry - commanded by Robert Gould Shaw - which suffered heavy losses in the battle.

Some fourteen years later, on May 31, 1897, the sculpture was unveiled on Boston Common. About four months after that, Howard Pyle, returning from a visit to Boston, sent a note to Saint-Gaudens in which he said:
Will it interest you to have one so much out of the world as I tell you how great is your Shaw Monument?

It impresses me now as the greatest and the most distinctly American achievement and I can forsee to reason to alter my opinion in the future.
(On Pyle‘s letter, by the way,which is now at Dartmouth College, Saint-Gaudens wrote, “I value this highly” - confirming yet again that Pyle’s opinion was indeed important to him.)

And in subsequent years, Pyle the teacher repeatedly referred to the sculpture to illustrate a point. During his September 5, 1904, composition lecture, for example, he said:
One can take an unpicturesque fact and, by emphasis, make a picturesque fact of it.

...for instance, take something I have often cited - the Shaw Memorial by St. Gaudens.

St. Gaudens had the problem before him of a row of marching soldiers with their guns all on a level.

Most artists would have broken the line of the guns by making some higher than others trying to get variety, but St. Gaudens, defying all rules - frankly put them straight across the composition. And so by insisting upon an apparently ugly fact he strengthened his work.
National Public Radio recently ran a story on the memorial in case you’d like to hear more.

“Malvern Hill” by Howard Pyle (1896)

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