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Augustus St. Gaudens

“My dear Henry James. This is to say First: the voyage (from London to New York) was a huge success. We all enjoyed it, bar my wife, to the ground. … Second, I had a fine time, rather a troubled one, at Newport and New York; saw much of and liked hugely, the Fairchilds and St. Gaudens the sculptor … and saw a lot of my old and admirable friend Will Low, whom I wish you knew and appreciated — was medallioned by St. Gaudens — and at last escaped to Third, Saranac Lake, where we now are, and which I believe we mean to like and pass the winter at. Our house — emphatically ‘Baker’s’ — is on a hill …”

— Robert Louis Stevenson to Henry James, October 1887

Augustus St. Gaudens, whom some call the master of American sculpture, had a big fan in President Theodore Roosevelt, who said of him: “There is no greater artistic genius living in this or any other country.” Born in Dublin, Ireland, St. Gaudens was just a boy when he came to America in 1848 with his parents to escape the great potato famine. He discovered early on that he liked working with his hands. His father knew a cameo-cutter who took him on as an apprentice, and soon St. Gaudens was the best cameo-cutter around. It was apparent to everyone that art, in particular sculpture, was his calling. Formal training began for free in the Cooper Union and then on to the National Academy of Design. Then his father, a shoemaker, scraped up enough money to send him to France to study, just in time to take in the 1867 Paris Exposition, where he was intrigued by the neo-Florentine school of sculpturing with its roots in the Italian Renaissance. The Franco-Prussian War of 1870 made Rome, Italy, a more practical place to live and work. There the Greco-Roman influence on Augustus St. Gaudens would infuse his subsequent creations with one of his hallmark traits, a satisfying blend of the modern with classicism.

Will Hickock Low was another American art student, who was born and raised in Albany. He too went to France to study, in 1873, when he was 21 years old. By 1877, after having befriended Robert Louis Stevenson along the way, Low could hardly believe it when he felt unmistakable pangs of homesickness. The time had arrived for Will to say good-bye to his bohemian band of friends, including the “two Stevensons,” and return to New York City to start making a living, where the art atmosphere, as he remembered it, “was like St. Patrick may have remembered the snakes in Ireland.” That quote is from Low’s book, “A Chronicle of Friendships” (1908), in which one of his favorite episodes concerns his friendship with St. Gaudens which began in Paris in 1877, shortly before Low returned to the USA. That’s when St. Gaudens hunted down Low to express his admiration for a painting of Low’s called “Reverie” which he had seen on exhibit. Low’s lower jaw could have hit the floor when “fate knocked at my door,” as he put it in his book, stressing the significance of Augustus St. Gaudens as the one who was doing the knocking. Gaudens was already a legend in the Paris art world, next to whom Low ranked himself as a nobody by comparison. “Your name is Low, is it not?” said the sculptor to the painter. “You had a bully picture in the Academy of Design last spring, and I wanted to come and tell you so. My name is St. Gaudens.”

Describing his new friend in his book, Low says, “St. Gaudens had a gift of making one ‘see things’ … it was precisely because he was so intently an artist that his mental vision was clear, and that which he saw in turn made visible — there is no other word — to others.” Robert Louis Stevenson and Augustus St. Gaudens did not get to meet when both of them were in France because neither of them were with their mutual friend Will Low at the same time. That would take 10 years, and it was Will Low who made it happen when RLS was a guest at the St. Stephen’s Hotel in New York City in September 1887. When the initial meeting was over, St. Gaudens began his drawings for the famous bas-relief known as the Stevenson Medallion, the largest casting of which greets visitors in the entrance to St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh, Scotland. That first sitting was only three days before the Stevenson Expedition came north to winter in Saranac Lake. Low was proud of his accomplishment and said so: “To bring together two men like Stevenson and Saint-Gaudens, to watch their instant understanding grow to close friendship, to see day by day the by far most satisfactory portrait of Stevenson develop through the sympathetic genius of St.-Gaudens, and meanwhile to listen or join in the talk by which these hours were enlivened, was a privilege for which my gratitude is only exceeded by the gratification which both these men never wearied of expressing to their intermediary friend, as for a service rendered.

“Knowing them as I did, it was to me a foregone conclusion that they should like each other; but though there are few things more gratifying than to bring congenial friends together; it has never been my good fortune to be so completely successful in this endeavour as when Augustus Saint-Gaudens met Robert Louis Stevenson.”

Will H. Low joined the fledgling Stevenson Society in Saranac Lake in 1916 and designed their bookplate. He went on to be president for two terms and was guest speaker at two of the society’s annual meetings, in 1923 and 1930. Three of his paintings still decorate Stevenson’s former study at Baker’s, and many of his letters remain unread in the society’s archives because his minuscule writing is next to impossible to read. Like Sam McClure said when he was the guest speaker in 1922, “If any of you ever get a letter from Low, you will have to make a real business of reading it.”

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