High art, home made

Email|Print| Text size + By Ellen Albanese
Globe Staff / September 5, 2004

Three opportunities to peek inside the creative process and begin to understand how it is influenced by place.

At the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H., operated by the National Park Service, visitors can see the home, studio, and gardens of the American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), best known for his monuments to heroes of the Civil War. The Weir Farm in Wilton, Conn., the only other national park dedicated to a visual artist, preserves the legacy of the American Impressionist J. Alden Weir (1852-1919). Finally, their contemporary, sculptor Daniel Chester French (1850-1931), is immortalized at Chesterwood, a National Trust site in Stockbridge, where his studio is preserved to look as though he has only stepped away for a moment.

If there is a common element that strikes a visitor to these sites, it is these artists' appreciation of natural beauty, the thoughtful way in which they designed their homes, gardens, and studios to take advantage of mountains, landscapes, and that all-important northern light. As Dorothy Weir once said of her father, ''He found the world beautiful, and he spent his life showing others the visions that he had seen."

Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site. Remote and dramatic, Saint-Gaudens's studio sits above the Connecticut River, with broad sloping lawns and a commanding view of Vermont's Mount Ascutney. The sculptor bought the property, a failed inn, in 1892 and named the estate Aspet after his father's birthplace in France. It was his summer home from 1885-97, and then his permanent residence from 1900 until his death in 1907. Saint-Gaudens was a founding member of the Cornish art colony, which included others such as Maxfield Parrish.

An excellent video in the visitors center places Saint-Gaudens in the context of his time. As a teenager, he was trained and worked as a cameo cutter and studied art in New York, all during the Civil War. At 19, he left to study in Europe, and when he returned, the country was eager to honor its heroes.

He brought to his work a mixture of European and American sensibilities. His first commissioned public sculpture, the Admiral David Glasgow Farragut Monument, portrays the admiral not as godlike but as an ordinary man, holding a pair of binoculars: He is squinting and one coattail is open, as if blown back by the wind. The sculpture was unveiled in 1881 to great critical acclaim, securing Saint-Gaudens's career. The base, designed by Stanford White, is imaginative and allegorical, an undersea view with waves and fishes. The monument at the historic site is a replica of the one in New York's Madison Square Park.

Some of Saint-Gaudens's most impressive works are displayed on the grounds, including his final version of the memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, leader of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment of African-American volunteers, which stands at Beacon and Park streets by Boston Common. (That statue is the second version; the perfectionist sculptor destroyed the first.) The depiction of Shaw and his men has a certain grittiness, but above the weary soldiers, the sculptor has placed an angel carrying an olive branch symbolizing peace and poppy blossoms for death, once again combining allegory and reality. In the quiet of the site, a visitor can look at this stunning work up close, noting feet and hooves in matched stride, marveling at the illusion of a regiment four soldiers deep who appear to be walking right out of the sculpture.

A striking departure from works honoring war heroes is the Adams Memorial. A cloaked figure, eyes closed and one hand to its face, seems without race or gender, featureless yet conveying sadness. The sculpture is a reproduction of one in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C., commissioned by historian Henry Adams for the grave of his wife, Clover, who committed suicide. Said Adams of the sculpture: ''Saint-Gaudens held up the mirror and no more; he meant to ask a question, not to give an answer."

Visitors can tour the ground floor of the home Saint-Gaudens shared with his wife, Augusta, also an artist, and their son, Homer, and enjoy the perennial garden he designed.

The ''Little Studio" next to the house was the sculptor's working space. It is classic in design, with cherry-colored stucco exterior walls topped by a copy of a frieze from the Parthenon, which he ordered from a catalog. Works by St. Gaudens, including several bas relief portraits that reveal his training as a cameo cutter, are in the studio. One area is devoted to his work on the standing Abraham Lincoln in Chicago's Lincoln Park, for which he used a Windsor, Vt., man, Langdon Morse, as a model.

Be sure to stop by the Ravine Studio, where this year's sculptor-in-residence, William J. Williams, continues to work in the bronze casting tradition. Through October, Wednesday-Sunday, Williams will be creating a portrait in clay, making a wax mold, and finishing a bronze as part of a commission to create sculptures of famous Missourians for the capitol building in Jefferson City.

Chesterwood. Like Saint-Gaudens, Daniel Chester French had the good fortune to be recognized and rewarded for his art during his lifetime, allowing him to buy Chesterwood, a 122-acre retreat in Stockbridge, which served as his country home from 1897 until his death in 1931. The highlight of Chesterwood is French's studio, providing a rich and detailed picture of the artistic, commercial, and social life of this sculptor. Saint-Gaudens's original studios were destroyed by fire; French's studio is the real thing. It is filled with his tools and works in plaster, marble, and bronze. A classical ''Andromeda" in white marble is one of the last pieces French finished.

Visitors can see plaster models of the seated Abraham Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial, the General Charles Devens equestrian sculpture in Worcester, two doors of the Boston Public Library (representing knowledge and wisdom), and ''Immortal Love," a fluid statue of a man and woman embracing. Chesterwood owns more than 500 of French's working models, including the 6- to 8-inch maquettes, or models, he used as his first draft.

A 50-foot length of railroad track begins under the floor in the studio and extends outside. Our guide explained that French and his assistants would set an unfinished sculpture on a swivel stand, place it in a rail car, and roll it outside so the sculptor could view the work in natural light.

The studio tour imparts an appreciation for the processes involvedin sculpting public monuments. Our guide explained the trials and errors of designing a proportional base for the Lincoln Memorial and the mechanics of assembling this 19-foot-tall seated figure on its 11-foot pedestal. The final monument was carved from 28 blocks of Georgian marble by the renowned Piccirilli brothers and the pieces fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle.

The studio faces a formal garden French designed around a fountain, with curved marble benches. The garden leads to a series of trails crisscrossing the property. The Woodland Walk is a pleasant 20-minute tour to a hemlock glade and back. It's easy to see how this tranquil landscape, its quiet broken only by birdsong, would refresh the creative spirit.

With an in-depth look at four of his sculptures, the Barn Gallery offers an overview of French's career and the central role of sculpture in creating a national identity during the American Renaissance. ''Daniel Chester French: Sculpting an American Vision" highlights the history and significance of French's Minute Man statue in Concord, a sculpture that recalls Saint-Gaudens's Farragut Monument with its celebration of an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary historical role; the Lincoln Memorial, with its challenges of scale; the Samuel F. Dupont Memorial in Washington, with its allegorical representations of wind, sky, and sea; and the US Custom House in New York, for which French designed four large sculptures depicting the continents of Asia, America, Europe, and Africa.

While preserving French's classic legacy, Chesterwood embraces the sculpture of today and tomorrow with its annual contemporary sculpture exhibit. This year's show, ''Reflections of Nature," runs through Oct. 11.

Chesterwood's mission, said Michael W. Panhorst, its director until last month, is not only to educate the public about French and his art but also to support the tradition of American sculpture. The contemporary sculpture show ''enlivens the setting in a special way," he said. ''The studio and residence stay the same, but the sculpture show is different every year."

When French needed to get away from it all, he escaped to a rustic cabin across the road from Chesterwood, called Meadowlark. Today, visitors can rent the two-bedroom cottage, owned by the Red Lion Inn, and spend a night in the private studio of one of America's most accomplished sculptors.

Weir Farm. Weir Farm is a bucolic enclave surrounded by some of the priciest real estate in the country, just 50 miles from New York. The Park Service's primary mission, said Ranger Christopher Gezon, is to preserve the landscape, which, after all, is what inspired J. Alden Weir and many of his contemporaries to paint in the American Impressionist style.

The effect of place on an artist's work is especially apparent here. In 1877, while studying at the cole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, Weir attended the third Impressionist exhibition and compared it to a ''chamber of horrors." He was a classically trained representational artist (his father was an artist of the Hudson River school, and painting master at the US Military Academy at West Point), and the open brushwork and bright colors went against everything he had been taught.

Weir acquired this 153-acre farm in 1882, and once he began spending his summers there, his style of painting changed markedly. He saw the landscape with new eyes, recognized how it changed according to the light, and discovered a new palette of colors. His work became decidedly impressionistic.

Park rangers lead tours around the farm and show spots or vistas that correspond to paintings by Weir and some of his contemporaries. Except for the trees that have grown up, the property looks much as it did 150 years ago, said Gezon. Old stone walls, some half hidden by vegetation, are such a prominent feature of the site that on Sunday mornings, Gezon offers a stone walls tour.

Weir's house, a small Greek Revival farmhouse, is still occupied, by the third generation of artists to live there. Weir's daughter Dorothy married the sculptor Mahonri Young, and the couple moved here. At Young's death in 1957, the house was sold to local artists Sperry and Doris Andrews. Sperry Andrews still lives there.

The tour includes Weir's studio, a wonderfully cluttered barn with hundreds of brushes stuffed into glass jars and tin cans, sketches, frames, rolled canvases, two massive and intricately carved dark wood cabinets Weir brought from the Netherlands, and an old bank note press the artist used to make small prints. Visitors also can see Young's studio, a larger, taller building more suited to sculpture. It was here that Young sculpted ''This Is the Place," the massive public monument commemorating Brigham Young's settlement in Salt Lake City.

The Weir Farm Trust's visiting artist and artist in residence programs give selected artists the opportunity to create a body of work based on their personal interpretation of Weir Farm. The work of Ann Huey, 2001 artist in residence who uses acrylics and pastels, is on display through Sept. 26.

One recent day, a trail of children made their way back from the pond, each clutching by a corner a still-wet painting fluttering in the breeze. More than 100 years after Weir painted here, the landscape continues to inspire the artist in us all.

Ellen Albanese can be reached at

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