Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland in 1848. His father, a shoemaker, moved his family to New York City when the future sculptor was but six months old. Growing up with an interest in art, Saint-Gaudens began apprenticing for a cameo cutter at the age of thirteen.
While apprenticing, he attended Cooper Union and the National Academy of Design. At the age of nineteen he moved to Europe to continue his studies in both Paris and Rome. Here Saint-Gaudens gained knowledge of the Italian Renaissance and met an American student whom he would later take for his wife. Upon returning to the United States, he began work as a professional sculptor.
When Saint-Gaudens returned to America, he received his first major commission in New York City. His statue of Civil War Admiral David Glasgow Farragut, unveiled in 1881 in Madison Square Garden, set a new standard for public monuments.
Other classic Saint-Gaudens monuments include a statue of Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln Park, Chicago; the memorial to Mrs. Henry Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery, Washington D.C. often considered his greatest sculpture; and a monument to Civil War Colonel Robert G. Shaw in Boston Common, dubbed Saint Gaudens’ “symphony in bronze”.
In 1906 his good friend, Theodore Roosevelt, asked Saint-Gaudens to re-design all of the nation’s circulating coinage. His mission was to make the United States’ coins rival the beautiful ancient coins from the Mediterranean region. Having accepted, he immediately began work on America’s two largest gold coins, the $20 and $10 denominations. (The larger coin would become known as the $20 Saint-Gaudens and the smaller would be referred to as the $10 Indian Head.)
Saint-Gaudens followed the instructions of the deeply religious Roosevelt closely and designed his new coins without the “In God We Trust” motto. Shortly after the introduction, however, Congress ordered that all coins accommodate these words. Learn more about the controversy that ensued by clicking here.
Unfortunately, Augustus Saint-Gaudens died in 1907 before he could see his designs become coins at all. Mint Director Charles Barber made some minor changes, but the two coins designed by our nation’s most acclaimed sculptor were deemed America’s most beautiful as soon as they entered circulation. Americans and coin collectors the world over gained treasured works of art that are worth considerably more today than their $20 face value.