Guide to the Saint-Gaudens Estate in Cornish New Hampshire

Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ home in Cornish, called Aspet, is beautifully preserved as he crafted it to be. Photo by John Hession

The Saint-Gaudens estate in Cornish is New Hampshire’s only national park and carries the dubious distinction of being the least-visited park in the country. But the nation’s ignorance is our gain, since this unspoiled and stunningly beautiful spot is also uncrowded and accessible. But even to locals who frequent the grounds of Aspet, there are delightful secrets just waiting to be discovered.

You might be forgiven if you’ve never heard of Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The name alone sounds patrician, perhaps Parisian, and if that’s your conclusion, in some sense you might be right. Augustus Saint-Gaudens did come from Paris, but he came from there by way of The Bowery in New York City. The son of French and Irish immigrants, Saint-Gaudens was born in Ireland and at 6 years old, landed in New York. He was destined to become America’s foremost sculptor. His work was to lead an American Renaissance and place him alone and above his contemporaries on either side of the Atlantic. The great sculptor, Rodin, on seeing his work at the Paris Exposition of 1900, doffed his hat, as homage to the artist.

At the age of 13, Saint-Gaudens was apprenticed to a cameo cutter, Louis Avet, who might be best described as a taskmaster, prone to rages. Saint-Gaudens was, however, a willing pupil who showed unusual promise. His miniature cameos rivaled his master’s and eventually surpassed them. Avet fired Saint-Gaudens, probably out of jealousy, only to later offer him a raise to return. Saint-Gaudens refused, an act that his father remembered as noble. This experience was good training for the emerging artist. As he worked at creating cameos, which he described as his “miserable slavery,” he was privy to the goings-on outside his window. The American Civil War was raging. Saint-Gaudens witnessed regiments of men marching off to war, singing “John Brown’s Body” as they went. He saw Ulysses Grant and to his amazement President Lincoln, whose height, he observed, seemed “entirely out of proportion” in the carriage he rode. He also saw the wounded returning from war, and President Lincoln lying in state at New York’s City Hall — these images would remain with him for his entire life and translate to seven sculptures that would memorialize the Civil War. His brush with the horrors of that war would make him a pacifist.

Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Courtesy of National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, NH

After the war, in 1867, Saint-Gaudens, like other artists of his day, journeyed to The City of Light — Paris. This son of a shoemaker arrived in Paris, tough minded from a hardscrabble life in New York, and mature beyond his years. He was described as a man possessed of “abounding vitality,” and “furious energy.” He was also affable, prone to singing as he worked, and resolved that he wanted to be a sculptor. To that end, he worked to be accepted at the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts. He was the first American ever enrolled at that institution, and soon became the school’s most prominent pupil.

During his time in Paris, Saint-Gaudens fell in love with a painter,  Augusta Homer, who would be his life-long companion and the guardian of his legacy after his death. The relationship was, at first,  tenuous. Saint-Gaudens, a descendant of a French father and Irish mother, was Catholic. Augusta came from Calvinistic stock. Ultimately though, she was able to overcome her parents’ objections. “Augustus,” she said, “is neither French or Irish — he is American.” For his part, Saint-Gaudens did not ask for Augusta’s hand until he received a commission that would provide enough money to support him and his prospective bride. That commission came. He was commissioned to create a sculpture of Admiral Farragut, the hero of the Battle of New Orleans, the first of seven commemorative outdoor sculptures that would catapult Saint-Gaudens to fame and adulation, both here in the US and in France. With the commission secured, Gus and Gussie, as they became known, were married.

It was on the heels of the Farragut success that Saint-Gaudens became involved in an affair with a woman named Albertina Hooligan, who was known as Davida Clark. She bore him an illegitimate son, whom they named Louis after Saint-Gaudens’ brother. Davida was the inspiration and the model for Diana, the only nude sculpture the artist ever created. Saint-Gaudens never recognized his illegitimate son officially, but did provide for him and his mother. Louis attended MIT and received a degree in engineering. Saint-Gaudens and his wife reconciled his indiscretion, but Saint-Gaudens never ceased loving Davida, whom he described as the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

After years in Paris, the two expatriates returned to New York. Charles Beaman, a lawyer who owned land in Cornish, NH, knew Saint-Gaudens, and also knew that he had been commissioned to do a Lincoln sculpture for the City of Chicago. He invited Gus and Gussie to summer in a rented house he owned. To tempt him further, he assured Saint-Gaudens that in New Hampshire he would find many “Lincoln-shaped” men that he could use as models. Gussie jumped at the idea but her husband was not as enthusiastic. He reportedly imagined the Granite State retreat with “skeletons hanging in the windows, blowing in the wind.” As it was, Gus and Gussie arrived via train at White River Junction, Vt., and made their way, through the mud, to the Beaman’s house. It was April. Gussie saw possibilities and convinced her husband to rent the property.

As promised by Beaman, Saint-Gaudens found the ideal model for what was to become Lincoln The Man, also known as The Standing Lincoln. His name was Langdon Morse. He was tall like Lincoln, with similar facial features. Saint-Gaudens converted an old hay barn into a studio and grew to love the property. In 1891, he bought the house and 80 acres for $2,400 and the promise to do a relief portrait of the hairless Beaman. He named his estate Aspet, after his father’s birthplace in France.

Saint-Gaudens was assured that in NH he would find many “Lincoln-shaped” men to use as models for his work. He found Langdon Morse (right) and based his famous “Standing Lincoln” (clay model at left) upon his likeness. Courtesy of National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, NH

Aspet eventually became Gus and Gussie’s permanent home. As Saint-Gaudens gained more and more recognition, he began to attract other artists to the Cornish area. Among them were Isadora Duncan, Maxfield Parrish (a life-long resident) and Thomas and Maria Dewing. The residences of these artists, known as the Cornish Colony, were connected to each other via paths that intertwined among more than 80 acres of land. Walking was the preferred method for getting from one artist’s house to another. The paths also probably crossed with another of Cornish’s residents: President Woodrow Wilson’s summer White House was in close proximity to the Saint-Gaudens estate. Those trails still exist. Click here for a larger (PDF) version of the trail map below.

More than 100 acres of the park is forested with several nature trails winding through the woodland area.

Saint-Gaudens was a driven man, meticulous in every way, and critical of his own work. While it might seem that Saint-Gaudens was all work and little play, life at Aspet was far from monastic. Henry Duffy, curator and chief of cultural resources at the estate, has drawings of a nine-hole golf course on the property. As one looks from the front of the house, toward the magnificent view of Mt. Ascutney in Vermont, indents hollowed out on the grounds mark where tees or greens once stood. The course, according to the PGA, may have been the first golf course in America to have underground irrigation. Duffy points out that workers digging in the soil often discover pipes, which must have been part of the drainage system. Some old photographs show a rather steep wooden contraption that served as a toboggan slide — not for the squeamish or the faint of heart. A lawn bowling green in summer  and a hockey rink in the winter testify to spirited games that included men and women (probably there was no checking allowed).

The Admiral Farragut sculpture by Saint-Gaudens is located in one of the many outdoor spaces on the estate. Photo by John Hession.

As Saint-Gaudens settled into life in the country, he began to involve himself in a kind of sculpture that was even larger than those he had cast in bronze. Aspet itself became a reflection of his art. The Saint-Gaudens estate can best be described as a series of “outside rooms,” each displaying one or more of his sculptures. Though Saint-Gaudens’ work can be seen in many parts of America and Europe, his estate contains duplicates and improvements on the work that defines him. Using a series of hedges, strategically planted, the viewer’s eye is drawn to a central attraction in each “room,” whether that be a simple relief, an atrium, a courtyard or a mammoth statue in bronze. Aspet is, to borrow a line from Wordsworth, a “recollection in tranquility.” As Gregory C. Schwarz, who is chief of interpretation at the estate, tells visitors, “All you hear are birds and lawn mowers, so I always encourage people to visit after 3 o’clock.”

The Saint-Gaudens estate is New Hampshire’s only national park. It carries the dubious distinction of being the least-visited park in the country. This is unfortunate if only because so much of America’s finest sculptor’s work is gathered and accessible in one location. The Farragut Monument that catapulted Saint-Gaudens to fame is there. It sits atop a pedestal that the architect Sanford White created — the first of many collaborations between the two.

“The Mystery of the Hereafter” by Saint-Gaudens

The bronze sculpture commissioned by historian Henry Adams to honor his wife Clover’s death is there. It is at once a haunting piece that Saint-Gaudens called “The Mystery of the Hereafter,” and that Adams called “The Peace of God.” Adams wife suffered from depression, and committed suicide. When Adams first saw the statue, he wept. The piece remains one of Saint-Gaudens’ most enigmatic creations.

Saint-Gaudens sun-drenched Little Studio contains a third rendition of Diana. His mistress Davida modeled for this, and is probably also the model for his sculpture of Amor Caritas, the winged angel.

A copy of Saint-Gauden’s statue of Diana is the centerpiece of his Little Studio at Aspet. He based her figure on his mistress Davida Clark. Photo by John Hession.

The original piece was mounted atop Madison Square Garden, ironically just above his friend and collaborator, Stanford White’s love nest.Saint-Gaudens had witnessed the horror of the Civil War and images of wounded men returning from battle were seared in his memory. These memories informed his work on what might be his most remarkable sculpture, the Shaw Memorial, a copy of which is housed at the end of still another outdoor room. He was commissioned to create the original version to be placed at the head of the Boston Common, celebrating the Massachusetts’ 54th Regiment of African-American Volunteers and their white Colonel Robert Shaw. The one at Saint-Gaudens National Park is a bit different. Saint-Gaudens, ever the perfectionist, preferred this rendition over the other, although he was never satisfied with either.

The Shaw Memorial is located in one of the many peaceful outdoor “rooms” on the estate’s grounds. Photo by John Hession.

After all, this is the artist who once said, “Conceive an idea. Then stick to it. Those who hang on are the only ones who amount to anything. You can do anything you please. It’s the way it’s done that makes the difference. A good thing is no better for being done quickly.”The Shaw Memorial was 14 years in the making. He used more than 40 different models. The head of the committee that had commissioned the work exclaimed, “People are grumbling for it, the city is howling for it, and most of the committee has become toothless waiting for it.” But the reaction to its unveiling and history concur: It was worth the wait.

Saint-Gaudens’ $20 gold piece commissioned by Teddy Roosevelt.

By October of 1897, Saint-Gaudens had produced bronze castings, relief portraits of his friend Robert Louis Stevenson, another of Cornelius Vanderbilt and John Singer Sargent’s wife, Violet. He was revered among the elite. President Theodore Roosevelt invited him to his inaugural ball, and buttonholed him to ask if he would be interested in designing a $20 gold piece to be produced by the US Treasury. Heretofore, coins had been designed by employees who worked at the mint. Saint Gaudens consented and produced the double eagle coin, considered by many to be the most beautiful US coin ever minted.  Such acclaim must have aroused jealousy in the designers at the mint. Though the double eagle was released to the public, it was never in circulation for very long. It also provoked controversy since the coin lacked the motto “In God We Trust.” Eventually, most double eagles were re-collected by the mint, although some still exist. Any Saint-Gaudens coin today fetches around $4,000 or more.Saint-Gaudens was commissioned by the city of New York, to cast a monument to William Tecumseh Sherman, that was to be placed near Central Park. This final piece would be the penultimate tribute to Sherman, and to the Civil War. It would be covered in gold leaf. Once again, Saint-Gaudens returned to Paris to have the piece cast. Historians debate whether his motives were to recapture his beginnings (an old man returns to Paris, as every old man must), or whether he left Aspet to resume his clandestine affair with Davida. Gussie had suffered a miscarriage in 1885 and her hearing had deteriorated further. Saint-Gaudens’ father and his close friend Robert Louis Stevenson had died. Regardless, Saint-Gaudens created the Sherman Memorial and displayed it at the 1900 World Exposition where it won the Blue Ribbon. That he was America’s and perhaps the world’s greatest sculpture was forgone.

The Sherman Memorial by Saint-Gaudens in Central Park.

The son of a shoemaker had risen and achieved greatness in the bosom of all Western Art — Paris. He could return to America, in triumph. What should have been his and Gussie’s happiest time was thwarted when Saint-Gaudens was diagnosed with colon cancer. He became very weak and required constant care from his wife during the passage home. Remarkably, after arriving back at Aspet, Saint-Gaudens plunged into a regimen that saw him pursue the completion of the Sherman Monument and simultaneously seek treatment for his life-threatening illness. One of the recommended remedies was Corn Flakes, then considered a health food, and the Kellogg Company sent him barrels of their product.Remarkably (or perhaps a tribute to the health-bestowing properties of Corn Flakes), Saint-Gaudens lived nearly 10 years after his initial diagnosis.His legitimate son, Homer, continued to maintain Aspet along with Gussie. In 1965, the Saint-Gaudens Estate was donated to the National Park Service. It is truly a hidden treasure for the Park Service and remains relatively unknown even here in the Granite State where it is preserved for all to enjoy. Saint-Gaudens once fretted that “bad statues are plastered up before the world to stick and stick for centuries while men and nations pass away.” Aspet remains a breathtaking testament to one of America’s great artists who lived by his own words: “It’s the way a thing is done that makes it right or wrong. That’s the only creed I have in art.”

Secret Facts

Five things you probably didn’t know about Saint-Gaudens

Trend Setters

Courtsey of National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, NH

In 1905, 85 members of the “Cornish Art Colony” staged an outdoor pageant at Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ home in honor of his 20th year in Cornish. This play, “A Masque of ‘Ours’, the Gods and the Golden Bowl,” sparked a nationwide interest in pageantry.

Artistic Beginnings

Courtsey of National Park Service, Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site, Cornish, NH

Saint-Gaudens began his career as a cameo cutter and on display at the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Site are some of his works with the likenesses of George Washington, Mary Queen of Scots and Hercules.

Secret of the Pond

Photo by John Hession

In the atrium, an iconic golden relief stands in front of a rectangular black pond that must be periodically dyed to maintain its color. Bright green frogs can sometimes be found swimming there among the lily pads.

A Disheveled SculptureSaint-Gaudens’ bust of Union General W.T. Sherman on display at the estate was probably preparatory work for his statue of Sherman on horseback being led by an angel planned for New York City’s Central Park. When Sherman arrived in Cornish to model he looked so disheveled that Saint-Gaudens suggested that he freshen up and return later. Sherman’s reply was that if he left, he wouldn’t return, so Saint-Gaudens sculpted his realistic likeness. The finished bronze statue hasn’t aged well, losing much of its gold leaf and now looks as disheveled as Sherman himself. The Central Park Conservancy reports they are working on a restoration campaign for the sculpture and plaza “to ensure the continuing vitality of one of America’s finest outdoor monuments.”

Lincoln in London

This statue of Abraham Lincoln by Saint-Gaudens is located in London

Former New Hampshire Governor John Gilbert Winant was appointed Ambassador to the United Kingdom during World War II. He wrote these words about an experience he had in London during the days of the Blitz:“Only this week in London in the early morning hours of the Sabbath Day, enemy bombs destroyed the House of Commons room of the Parliament and smashed the altar of Westminster Abbey. These two hits seemed to me to symbolize the objectives of the dictator and the pagan. Across the street from the wreckage of these two great historic buildings of State and Church, Saint-Gaudens’ statue of Abraham Lincoln was still standing. As I looked at the bowed figure of the Great Emancipator and thought of his life, I could not help but remember that he loved God, that he had defined and represented democratic government, and that he hated slavery.“And as an American I was proud that he was there in all that wreckage as a friend and sentinel of gallant days that have gone by, and a reminder that in this great battle for freedom he waited quietly for support for those things for which he lived and died.”.

Categories: Summer Attractions