Few works have altered the course of American sculpture. This is one of them.
For most of the nineteenth century the neoclassical style dominated American sculpture. Ward's Washington, Brown's Lincoln (OMOM #6, 15), and Pickett's Samuel F.B. Morse (Central Park) have capes that might almost be togas. The Statue of Liberty is dressed like a Greek. Symbols of the Roman Republic, such as the fasces, appear frequently (Washington, Washington Arch; OMOM #6, 12). In an extreme instance that startled even his contemporaries, Horatio Greenough portrayed Washington in 1841 as Olympian Zeus, bare to the waist and seated on a throne.
Farragut, by contrast, wears the uniform of a Civil-War naval officer, accurately depicted right down to the eagles on the buttons. He carries binoculars in one hand and lifts his head to scan the distance, bracing his feet as if on a heaving deck. The front of his knee-length coat blows open with the wind of his ship's motion.
These details add up to a major difference from earlier portraits. Farragut looks as if he were doing his job - commanding a fleet - rather than posing for a portrait. "He is so quiet," commented Lorado Taft, "that he seems to move." It was an extraordinary innovation, but not the only one Saint Gaudens incorporated into this memorial.
Pedestals of portrait statues were typically simple and rectangular with a few inscribed lines, intended only to raise the figure above the passing throng. Typical are the Lafayette and Washington at Union Square (OMOM #14, 13)—both familiar to Saint Gaudens.
Departing from this norm, Saint Gaudens requested the assistance of his friend architect Stanford White to create a pedestal that adds to the viewer's knowledge of Farragut's character and actions.
For the broad stone base, Saint Gaudens designed figures in relief of Loyalty (on the left) and Courage (on the right, wearing a breastplate). A lengthy inscription in elegant lettering describes Farragut's achievements.
The background is an irregular series of waves, the terminals leaping fish. Since the original stone had a bluish tint, the whole pedestal recalled the sea.
Although the pedestal is considerably larger than Farragut, it's calculated to draw attention to him. The upper edge slants gently up toward the center, where two vertical lines draw our gaze up to the figure. The upward movement is continued by the vertical lines of Farragut's legs and sword and the double line of buttons. Without conscious effort, our eyes finish on Farragut's face - a relatively small part of the composition.
The pedestal is also designed to draw us near. Its ends curve forward, so we can't read the complete inscription unless we mount the steps. Doing so, we find a charming detail: a bronze crab bearing the names of Saint Gaudens and Stanford White set into the pebble-strewn concrete.
The Farragut Monument was a turning point for American sculpture because it not only conveyed the subject's physical appearance but revealed that he was a far-sighted, courageous naval leader, all the while encouraging us to linger, look at the details and think about the importance of Farragut the man. Even today, it remains a remarkable achievement.
Ironclads are "cowardly things," said David Glasgow Farragut (7/5/1801-8/14/1870), the first officer in the United States Navy to be promoted to the rank of admiral. Ericsson's Monitor (see OMOM #2) had beaten the Confederate ironclad Merrimac at Hampton Roads in 1862, and dozens of monitor-style ships were being built. But Farragut didn't consider them a magic bullet, favoring "iron hearts and wooden ships."
Having served in the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War (1846-48), Farragut was one of the most experienced Civil-War naval commanders. He led the forces that captured New Orleans in 1862, putting nearly all the Mississippi River into Union hands and splitting the South in half. In 1864 he was ordered to capture Mobile Bay, the South's best remaining port on the Gulf of Mexico and a haven for ships running the Union blockade.
Mobile Bay's first line of defense was a string of "torpedoes," floating barrels filled with gunpowder and rigged to explode if a passing ship touched a fuse. A narrow channel east of the torpedoes was guarded by the guns of Fort Morgan. Beyond, the Bay was defended by the South's most formidable ironclad, the Tennessee.
On August 5, 1864, Farragut arrayed his eighteen ships for battle. Four ironclads at the head of the line were to bear the brunt of Fort Morgan's attack, and chase the Tennessee if she retreated into shallow water. Wooden screw-propelled vessels followed, lashed to small side-wheel steamers.
As the ships entered the Bay, the over-eager captain of the leading ironclad turned too quickly. His ship's unarmored belly was ripped open by a mine. In minutes she went down, with over a hundred hands.
The remaining ships milled about under the murderous guns of Fort Morgan. Informed of the crisis, Farragut, who had clambered up the shrouds of his flagship in order to see above the guns' smoke, shouted "Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!" Moving his flagship to the head of the line, he led the fleet into the Bay. Although the breathless crews heard mines rubbing against their boats' hulls, no others detonated. Within three hours the Tennessee surrendered and the last major port on the Gulf coast fell into Union hands.