The Philadelphia Art Museum’s recent announcement that its monumental sculpture “Diana” will be restored to its original golden splendor over the next several months does not mean that American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ depiction of the huntress cannot be seen. It just means that area art lovers will have to go to the Princeton University Art Museum to view a version of what once was the most heavenly and observed sculpture in the United States.
The Irish-born Saint-Gaudens, who was six months old when his parents arrived in New York City in 1848, has been called the first great sculptor of the United States. After training in New York (as a cameo cutter apprentice and student at Cooper Union and the National Academy of Art and Design), he studied at Paris’s Ecole des Beaux-Art and in Rome.
His most familiar works — which used nuanced and elegant sculptural techniques to create grand yet human figures from American and world history — include the “Shaw Memorial” (1897) in Boston, “The Sherman Monument”(1903) in Central Park, “The Standing Lincoln” (1887) in Lincoln Park, Chicago, and, of course, “Diana” or “Diana of the Tower.” The latter is perhaps his most sensational and controversial work.
The Diana statue was born from a request from eminent architect Stanford White, who was designing New York City’s Madison Square Garden, then at 26th Street and Madison Avenue. White — Saint-Gaudens’ friend and frequent collaborator — asked the sculptor for a spectacular finishing touch to the building and is said to have suggested Diana as a weathervane.
“Saint-Gaudens found in ‘Diana’ an opportunity to work in an ideal vein,” says a note prepared by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which owns a small replica. “His interpretation of the Roman goddess of the moon and the hunt eschews the traditional full-bodied huntress, instead focusing on simple, elegant lines and a strong silhouette reminiscent of a New England weathervane.”
To create the sculpture he combined the face of his Swedish-born-model mistress with the body of 17-year-old Julia “Dudie” Baird. One of the famous New York City models of the era, Baird posed for numerous artists and is the image of “Victory” leading Sherman at Central Park’s Grand Army Plaza. To capture the model’s celebrated proportions, Saint-Gaudens made plaster body casts.
The sculpture has several distinctions. In addition to being the proficient artist’s only nude (among his more than 150 pieces), it was one of his largest works — 18 feet of gilded copper.
It was also his most visible. When it was set in place in October, 1891, “Diana” marked the highest point in Manhattan standing 347 feet tall above the city. Additionally, its reflective surface and its status as the first sculpture to be illuminated by electricity in New York City allowed the glistening figure to be viewed both day and night in New York City and New Jersey communities along the Hudson river.
The nude figure of a Greek goddess associated with games and hunting was designed to combine both classicism and modernism as well as to elevate the image of the gaming center, in a manner similar to how banks adopted the architecture of ancient temples.
Yet this Diana was more than classical, and the Philadelphia Art Museum documents note that “her athletic fitness and elongated proportions were strikingly modern, and her nudity initially provoked indignant comments.” It also engendered debates about ideals in art, the use of the nude in public art, and social satire.
The sculptor and the architect were not pleased, but public comment had nothing to do with it. The designers felt that in relation to the building the statue was proportionally incorrect — in both form and function — and decided to correct the problem by casting the 13-foot-tall Diana that now stands in the Great Stair Hall of the Philadelphia Museum of Art (and is about to be re-gilded by the museum’s conversation team applying 180 square feet of gold leaf).
The new sculpture was set in place in 1893 and remained one of the visible sites in Manhattan, until 1925 when Madison Square Garden was torn down and moved to Eighth Avenue at 49th and 50th Streets. The statue — which then languished in storage — came to Philadelphia in 1932 through an arrangement with the New York Life Insurance Company, which had taken ownership of the figure when it razed the old Garden building for its new office building.
The original 1891 statute, meanwhile, went to Chicago’s World’s Columbian Exposition, for which Saint-Gaudens served as head of the sculpture committee. There it was placed on top of Agriculture Building. Records note that a fairgrounds fire destroyed the lower portion of the figure and that the upper portion is missing.
The Princeton sculpture is half the size of the original figure and arrived in 1990, donated by the late Princeton residents Alex and Katherine Ettl. Alex ran the family-founded Sculpture House (a tool making and casting facility) in New York City and the Princeton-area arts colony Ettl farm. Katherine was a sculptor.
The work was cast from a cement model that the artist had presented to White. In 1979 the Madison Square Garden organization commissioned six casts from that model to mark the arena’s centenary, making a special arrangement with the White Estate that the mold would be destroyed.
The casts were made at Ettl’s Sculpture House. Four were sold to private collectors, one went to Brook Green Garden in South Carolina, and the remaining work was coated in gold leaf and kept by Madison Square Garden.
At the time of the donation, as one newspaper report says, one of private owners of a newly molded Diana — desperate for assets to conclude a lawsuit with his wife and pay large legal fees — contacted Ettl and asked him to find a buyer for the statue. “Mr. Ettl tactfully declines to name the individual, but says, ‘That night I had a vision. I knew I was going to buy it and give it to the university. It is one of the pieces of sculpture I’ve always wanted to own, but it is no good for one person to have it because it belongs to the people,” says the article.
There are other replicas of Diana. According to the National Gallery of Art, “Saint-Gaudens made several smaller variants in bronze of the second ‘Diana of the Tower.’ Some of these statuettes, cast at a foundry in Paris in 1899, stand upon tripod pedestals supported by griffins, mythical hybrids of lions and eagles, symbolizing strength.” One of these can be seen at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.
Besides “Diana” other Saint-Gaudens’ works can be seen on the Princeton campus and at the New Jersey State Museum.
One is Saint-Gaudens’ bronze medallion relief of Scottish poet and novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, whom Saint-Gaudens admired and arranged to meet in New York City in 1887. The work — noted as a portrait d’apparat, or a work that places the subject in the midst of his or her profession — depicts the chronically ill and bed-ridden Stevenson propped up and writing.
While the portrait was originally envisioned as a horizontal work, Saint-Gaudens chose to focus the viewer’s eye on the writer by placing the figure in a circle and eliminating the details of the bed and room (however, the artist would return to the rectangular frame for some castings, including the 1904 Stevenson memorial for St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh).
Saint-Gaudens eventually produced several variations of the circular portrait in three different sizes: 36, 24, and 12 inches, with each having an individual handling with composition and inscription.
The 1890 Princeton medallion is listed as the first cast and is centered in an octagon wood frame designed by Stanford White. It is located at the Princeton’s University Art Museum.
Another Stevenson medallion hangs in the New Jersey State Museum in Trenton, significant for the fact that April and May of 1888 the writer stayed in Manasquan, New Jersey, and Saint-Gaudens paid at least one visit to the New Jersey town for the artist to model. The report notes that Stevenson was asked to write something so the work would appear natural and that the writer wrote a letter to the artist’s son.
Stevenson was not the only figure used by Saint-Gaudens for a medallion to be found in the area. The Princeton Art Museum also has a cast of the sculptor’s rendering of French artist Jules Bastien-Lepage.
The two artists met when Saint-Gaudens was studying at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris in 1868. Years later, the French artist asked Saint-Gaudens to capture his visage in a medallion. A text on the portrait notes that Saint-Gaudens’ son noted that “none of the medallions my father then modeled satisfied him to the extent of that of Bastien-Lepage, both because he believed the relief was as near perfection as he ever came, and because he was greatly interested in a rare combination of talent and vanity in his sitter.”
In addition to the images found in the museum, two other Saint-Gaudens works can be found on the Princeton campus. They are of the same subject: Princeton University president James McCosh (1811-1894).
As noted in an 1889 university journal, “The class of 1879 makes a departure this year in its decennial gifts to the College. It will present a heroic portrait in bronze of ex-president McCosh, executed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The statue, for it is nothing less than this, though executed in relief upon a flat groundwork, has been made from numerous sittings lately given to the sculptor by the venerable Scotchman whose most vigorous work for the college was done while the Class of ’79 was undergoing its course of instruction. Placed on the wall of (Marquand) Chapel to the left of the apse, it will be for all time a lasting tribute to the vigorous administration of Dr. McCosh and a worthy record of the best art of the day.”
However, a fire destroyed Marquand Chapel in 1921 and, according to a university website, left only the statue’s bust, which was then moved to Firestone Library’s special collections, along with several commemorative coins created by the artist.
The Class of 1879 had decided to restate its commitment to honor McCosh and during its 50th reunion, in 1929, they presented a recast of that original sculpture from a plaster at the Saint-Gaudens Historic Site in New Hampshire to be placed in the Princeton University Chapel, which had just been completed in 1928.
Today the full-figure wall relief of McCosh — wearing an academic robe and before a lectern — stands at the end of the left transept and commemorates the scholar, the institution, and the sculptor.
And the class was right. It is a record of the best art of its day and an artist whose reputation — and one particular sculpture — once towered over a nation.