It Took a Team of Sculptors to Produce the “Saint-Gaudens” Double Eagle

By Mark Ferguson for PCGS ……
 

Popularly regarded as America’s most beautiful coin and affectionately known in numismatics as the “Saint”, the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle is attributed to one man, sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907). Unbeknownst to most people, it took a team of sculptors to produce the gold coin’s design.

The obverse design, which is our focus here, is based on the sculpture “Victory”, part of the Sherman Monument, located near an entrance to Central Park in New York City. The monument portrays General William Tecumseh Sherman on his horse with an allegorical, winged goddess known as Victory leading his horse.

It is that depiction of Victory that was the model for the obverse design of the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle. In 1892, Saint-Gaudens had been awarded the commission for the monument. He began working on it in his New York City studio that year, then continued work on it in Paris, France, during the late 1890s, before finishing the sculpture in his Cornish, New Hampshire studio in 1903. The Sherman Memorial was dedicated May 30, 1903, in New York City and was Saint-Gaudens’ last great public commission before his death.

Assistant Sculptors to Augustus Saint-Gaudens

A couple of years ago, after a lifetime in numismatics, I learned that Helen Farnsworth Mears (1871-1916), a sculptor from my hometown of Oshkosh, Wisconsin, served as Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ first female assistant and remained his lifelong friend. Mears grew up about a mile from my house. Very interesting, I thought. I know it’s a long shot, but is it possible that she could have worked on the design for the Saint?

Helen Farnsworth Mears at work in her studio. Image is courtesy of the Oshkosh Public Library.
Helen Farnsworth Mears at work in her studio. Image courtesy of the Oshkosh Public Library.

To my surprise, a book about Mears quoted a May 14, 1898 letter from Saint-Gaudens, sent to her while she was studying in Italy with her sister Mary:

“The offer I made you still holds good. I will say nothing though that may influence your decision. I thought it possible that the war might have made it necessary for you to return via France and then we might have discussed the plan with more leisure than before.”

The book’s author explained that the “offer” to which Saint-Gaudens alluded was his proposal that Helen worked as his assistant on the General Sherman monument. Helen accepted his offer, and she and Mary returned to Paris. I thought, Wow! She really did work on the sculpture that was to become the model for the Saint.

To my amazement, I found that Mears indeed did most of the sculpting on Victory, albeit under the direction of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, who was seriously ill with cancer. One art historian noted, “Given his illness, he relied on assistants to carry out much of the physical work.” While Mears modeled Victory, Alexander Phimister Proctor (1860-1950), known for his sculptures of animals, created General Sherman’s horse.

Life with Saint-Gaudens in Paris

Archived documents and personal correspondence between Saint-Gaudens and the Mears sisters provide telling insights into Saint-Gaudens’ persona.

This bas-relief sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens was created by Helen Farnsworth Mears. Image is courtesy of the Oshkosh Public Museum.
This bas-relief sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens was created by Helen Farnsworth Mears. Image courtesy of the Oshkosh Public Museum.

After her first meeting with him, Mary Mears remarked:

“My introduction to Saint-Gaudens was in my sister’s Latin Quarter studio in the Rue Notre Dame des Champs. He had come to inspect a bust she had started for him; for, like many masters, past, and present, he employed the most advanced of his students to assist him in his work. I was fresh from Wisconsin and my chief concern that day was the atelier [artist’s studio], for it had been my responsibility. Would Saint-Gaudens approve the light? Would he think the place suitable for the work in hand? Imagine my relief then, when he turned to me and said: “It’s perfect. I congratulate you, Mademoiselle, on finding such a spot.”

While in Paris in 1898 for the Sherman project, Helen Mears produced both a bust and a bas-relief sculpture of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Bas-relief is a shallow, three-dimensional sculpture, like that on most coins, coincidentally in contrast to the Saint-Gaudens high-relief double eagle. The Mears’ bas-relief piece shows a portion of the Sherman Monument in the background and was a favorite of the Saint-Gaudens family. Several copies of it were cast.

From May to November 1898, Helen Mears worked half days on Victory for Saint-Gaudens. Saint-Gauden’s objective for the sculpture was to convey a look of power and forward motion. He was a perfectionist, and he made endless changes to the monument before it was finished to his satisfaction. Augusta, his wife, sewed countless tiny cloaks from which to model folds in the general’s cloak, and likely did so for Victory as well.

Besides Mears and Proctor, a few other sculptors are noted as having worked in Saint-Gaudens’ Paris studio. One of these additional artists is widely familiar to numismatists and is none other than James Earle Fraser (1876-1953), the designer of the Buffalo Nickel. Two other sculptors who worked with Saint-Gaudens in 1898 were Henry Hering (1874-1949) and Elsie Ward (1871-1923). The pair would eventually marry.

Reminiscing many years after her sister died, Mary Mears recalled some of the experiences the Saint-Gaudens team had together:

“It was impossible to associate with Saint-Gaudens daily, as we were doing, without becoming acquainted with his friends, not only with those with whom he was in contact at the moment but those who had vanished from human sight as well … At the time of which I write, [Frederick William] MacMonnies, [James Abbott McNeill] Whistler, and Saint-Gaudens were in the habit of dining together at Foyot’s.”

To his friends, Augustus Saint-Gaudens was known as “Gus.” According to Mary:

“One such incident I heard described, partly by my sister and partly by Mr. Saint-Gaudens. Perched on a ladder, my sister was modeling on the Sherman monument, under his direction, when Whistler, dressed in the odd style he affected, with his white lock and pointed beard, entered the studio. He wanted the sculptor [Gus] to go with him to the Louvre.”

Working in Paris provided the Saint-Gaudens team with wonderful opportunities to study many of the world’s greatest works of art.

Exhibitions of The Sherman and a Fortuitous Meeting

Before the Sherman Monument was installed in New York in 1903, the Sherman plaster and that of Victory were exhibited in the Paris Salon of 1899, the Paris Exposition Universelle of 1900, and the Pan-American Exposition of 1901 in Buffalo, New York. The French loved his work so much that Saint-Gaudens was awarded the French Legion of Honor in 1901. He wrote his son Homer, humorously remarking, “I’ve got a swelled head for the first time in my life. I have become a harmless, drooling, gibbering idiot, sitting all day long looking at the statue. Occasionally I fall on my knees and adore it.”

Requiring surgery in the summer of 1900, Saint-Gaudens moved back to his New Hampshire residence, which is now a national historical park. With him came several assistants who worked in the Paris studio. They remained at Saint-Gaudens’ Cornish studios until his passing in 1907, and a few stayed on after his death to finish commissions that had been started. During this time, continual improvements were made on the Sherman Monument, right up to its installation in New York. Fraser stated, “As I recall it there were 15 of us working at one time … It was like Donatello at Padua except he had 21 sculptors to help him.”

During that time, one assistant sculptor, Robert Treat Paine, perfected the pointing machine used by Saint-Gaudens. Called a “cubical pantograph”, the machine increased the speed and accuracy of previous machines that were used to increase small models to monumental proportions.

Fortuitously, Saint-Gaudens had met President Theodore Roosevelt at the Pan-American Exposition in 1901. A few years later, he spent time in Washington, D.C., serving on a committee that oversaw changes to the mall. Roosevelt had a dream to redesign the nation’s coinage to a higher artistic standard and, over dinner in 1905, convinced Saint-Gaudens to take on the project. The famous sculptor submitted preliminary sketches in 1905 and in January 1906 was given the go-ahead to begin the project. He became the first artist not affiliated with the United States Mint to design a U.S. coin.

Creation of the Double Eagle Gold Coin

Saint-Gaudens’ health was worsening and one of his assistants, Henry Hering, was charged with carrying out most of the work on the models for the double eagle. At the same time, his team was also busy working on the Saint-Gaudens $10 gold coin. In February 1907, the Mint made three trial strikes of the $20, and then the reverse die cracked. They found that each ultra-high-relief coin required seven strikes at 150 tons of pressure. That many strikes and the time it took to achieve the level of perfection they desired were unacceptable for producing coins for general circulation.

Unfortunately, as these early strikes were hitting the coin presses, Augustus Saint-Gaudens passed away on August 3, 1907. During the end of August and early September of that year, 500 high-relief examples of the double eagle were laboriously coined, but they couldn’t be used for everyday commerce because of the difficulty in striking them. Charles Barber, chief engraver of the U.S. Mint, reworked the design to flatten the relief so the coins could be more efficiently struck.

Although Helen Farnsworth Mears passed away in her New York studio in 1916 at just 43 years of age, she had the pleasure of seeing the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle, which was based on her creation of Victory, used in commerce. Unknown by most numismatists today, the memorial for Mears and the other assistant sculptors who modeled the Sherman Monument, Victory, and the double eagle lies in the glorious coins themselves.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. What a story! I had no idea that S.G. had so much help with the double eagle. I know I’ll look at them totally different from now on and give credit where credit is due. I also had no idea about The Sherman and Victory. Very fascinating. It’s too bad that S.G. Never got to see the coins in circulation. However, I’m sure that the high relief 500 first minted where far more beautiful.

  2. Thank you for such a fantastic account! Like probably every collector since the early 20th century I’ve always considered St. Gauden’s double eagle (and Weinman’s half dollar, of course) to occupy the peak of American coinage, but I’ve been completely unaware of the backstory. We in the numismatic community need to do more to honor these unsung contributors!

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