Admiral David Glasgow Farragut
Farragut in the Shrouds
At the Battle of Mobile Bay (August 5, 1864), Farragut clung precariously to the mainmast. His officers finally persuaded him to run a line to his waist in case he should be wounded and fall. Periodicals in New York elaborated this into the image of the admiral lashed to the mast, like Odysseus facing the Sirens. In World War I, the image was fashioned into a Navy recruitment poster.
Augustus Saint Gaudens and the Commission for the Farragut Statue
John Quincy Adams Ward, at the time America's most prominent sculptor, was offered the Farragut commission. Ward turned the commission down, but strongly recommended a young sculptor who had just returned from six years' study in Europe. Farragut was Augustus Saint Gaudens’s big break.
Saint Gaudens (1848-1907) is arguably the greatest sculptor America has produced. Born in Dublin, he was brought to New York City as an infant. He worked as a cameo-cutter while studying art at Cooper Union, then studied for several years in Paris. Farragut, 1881, was his first major commission. Other significant works include the Puritan, 1886 (Springfield, Mass.); the Standing Lincoln, 1887 (Chicago); the Adams Memorial, 1891 (Washington), and the Shaw Memorial, 1897 (Boston).
Aside from Farragut, Manhattan has Cooper and Sherman, 1903. The Metropolitan Museum's American Wing has several of his works, including Diana, 1894 (a copy of the weathervane from Madison Square Tower). Staten Island has Richard Randall, 1884, at Snug Harbor, and Brooklyn has the David Stewart Memorial, 1883, in the Green-Wood Cemetery. At Theodore Roosevelt's invitation, Saint Gaudens designed the famous "Walking Liberty" ten-dollar gold piece in 1906.
For more on Saint Gaudens, see “Artist-Entrepreneurs: Saint Gaudens, MacMonnies, and Parrish,” available as a taped lecture from the Ayn Rand Bookstore.
An Artist’s First Glimpse of Farragut
Maitland Armstrong, a painter of some renown in his time, wrote to his friend Saint Gaudens:
When I went over to see your statue this morning, and saw the whole thing there before me, it fairly took my breath away, and brought my heart into my mouth. It is perfectly magnificent. I haven't felt so about anything for years. The sight of such a thing renews one's youth, and makes one think that life is worth living after all. I felt as I have only done about a few things in my life ... I was surprised to see how the rabble about the statue spoke of it, and how they seemed to be touched by it. It is a revelation to them, and what is more, I feel that they are ready and longing for better art. It cheers one to think it. -- Maitland Armstrong to Saint Gaudens, 1880; from Saint Gaudens' Reminiscences, 1913
Fifty-five years after Farragut was dedicated, it had fallen into a sorry state, as reported in the New York Times in 1935:
And Admiral Farragut - but Admiral Farragut, standing on top of what looks distressingly like the pilot house of an abandoned barge, is another story and a sadder one. … It is the fury of the weather gods that has brought the Farragut statue in Madison Square to its present pitiful pass. The figure of the admiral is in bronze and needs only a loving touch or two, but the state of his beautiful base is truly lamentable. It was cut from bluestone, a material used perhaps for its soft surface and its marine color, or perhaps, as Saint-Gaudens's biography is said to suggest, for reasons of economy. The bench and the back with its waves and its figures in low relief has given rest and pleasure to generations of New Yorkers. … If man has had half a century of pleasure in it, the elements have had that much time to work with it. The foundation has given way, every joint has opened up, the carving is so loose that tapping would almost shake it off. It is the measured opinion of Park Department experts that while foundations and joints could be fixed the condition of the surface is such that repair is no longer possible. They talk wistfully of wanting to preserve so great a work of art by reproducing it (by a simple process which all sculptors know and make use of) in granite. But the cost for materials is more than they can pay with present funds, and so as a measure of safety, and until some wise donor comes forward to save for the city one of its chief treasures, they have covered it against the elements.Copying the base was undertaken later in 1935, as a Works Progress Administration project with federal funding. The original bluestone base is preserved at Saint Gaudens' summer home in Cornish, NH.
Copyright (c) 2013 Dianne L. Durante