Making It Real: Augustus Saint-Gaudens and the New Movement in American Sculpture

Thayer Tolles, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Tuesday, June 8, 2010Mini-exhibit: 7:15pmLecture: 8:00pm
de Young Museum
The Puritan by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

The Puritan by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), 1883–86; this casting, 1899 or later, bronze, 30 1/2 x 18 1/2 x 13 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Jacob Ruppert, 1939

Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens

Diana by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), 11893–94; this cast, 1894 or after, bronze, 28 1/4 x 16 1/4 x 14 inches. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Lincoln Kirstein, 1985

To aficionados of American art, Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) is known as the greatest American sculptor of the late 19th century, most notably for his stirring monuments to Civil War heroes in East Coast urban centers. How did he earn and maintain this distinction both during his lifetime and in the century following his death? Dr. Thayer Tolles will put Saint-Gaudens in context, illustrating how, by the late 1870s, his innovative work departed from the prevailing neoclassical marble aesthetic. His training in current Parisian practices and his exposure to the creative ferment of French and American artists enabled Saint-Gaudens to celebrate innovation in his art.

Realism was paramount. In both Saint-Gaudens’s public monuments and his smaller bas-relief portraits, the veracity of the likeness was the true measure of success. From the Farragut Monument (1877-80) for Madison Square Park, New York, to his half-length relief portrait of the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, an accurate likeness was the starting point for a depiction of the individual that radiated the sitter’s character and values, as well as morals for the viewer’s edification. Dr. Tolles will address these two distinct aspects of Saint-Gaudens’s work, technique and depiction, because they both were crucial to launching a cosmopolitan “new movement” in American sculpture in the 1880s. His sculptures—-large and small, public and private—-were at once evidence of sophisticated foreign-trained talent working in an original idiom, but they also refuted American artistic provincialism.

Thayer Tolles is Curator in the Department of American Paintings and Sculpture at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she oversees the American sculpture collection. She received a bachelor’s degree in history and art history from Williams College and a doctorate in art history from City University of New York. Her dissertation was “Augustus Saint-Gaudens, His Critics, and the New School of American Sculpture, 1875-1893.”

Dr. Tolles curated the exhibition Augustus Saint-Gaudens in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (2009) with an accompanying publication of the same title. Among her other exhibitions are Cast Images: American Bronze Sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum of Art (New York State Museum, 2007) and Nine Contemporary Sculptors: Fellows from the Saint-Gaudens Memorial (UBS Gallery, New York, 2005).

Thayer Tolles edited and co-authored the two-volume catalogue American Sculpture in The Metropolitan Museum of Art (1999 and 2001) and Perspectives on American Sculpture Before 1925: The Metropolitan Museum of Art Symposia (2003). She also co-authored Captured Motion: The Sculpture of Harriet Whitney Frishmuth (2006).

Since 2001, she has participated in planning for extensive ongoing renovations to the American Wing, most recently reinstalling the monumental sculpture collection in the Charles Engelhard Court that reopened in 2009. She is also actively involved in reinstalling the paintings and sculpture galleries, which are scheduled to reopen in 2011.

In addition to her curatorial work, Dr. Tolles teaches for Sotheby’s Institute of Art and serves on the advisory boards of the Saint-Gaudens Memorial in Cornish, New Hampshire, and Chesterwood, a National Trust for Historic Preservation site, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. When she last spoke to the Forum, in 2006, her topic was “From Rome to San Francisco Direct: American Neoclassical Sculpture in the Victorian Age.”

7:15pm mini-exhibit

Cast or sculpted three-dimensional depictions. Share your medals, coins, bronzes and sculpture.


Koret Auditorium, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. Enter from Level B1 of the parking garage; pedestrians enter from the concourse side of Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive and down the steps across the street from the museum’s main entrance.