Coin enthusiasts far and wide appreciate the groundbreaking design of the Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle. This Beaux-Arts wonder was meant to bring U.S. currency into the twentieth century, and its beauty remains unmatched. The story of the man behind the gold coin is equally impressive, though not as well known.
Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland, but left the country as an infant when his family fled the Great Famine of the 1840s. After arriving at Ellis Island in 1848, the Saint-Gaudens family settled in New York City. Augustus’ father, a Frenchman by birth, decided that his son should begin to learn a trade when he turned 13. Augustus, always an artist at heart, shied away from manual work and chose to be apprenticed to a cameo cutter.
The rise of the middle class during the Victorian era led to a demand for fashionable jewelry and accessories as people looked for ways to spend their newfound wealth. Cameos were a popular accessory for both men and women. These porcelain carvings often featured portraits of a woman in profile, or sometimes an animal, such as a lion. Sculpting cameos was an art that was suddenly in high demand, and the work required a keen eye for form and a steady hand for working on tiny surfaces in fine detail.
Saint-Gaudens excelled at the craft, and by the age of 19, his body of work had earned him a reputation as an outstanding craftsman. After studying at Cooper Union in New York, he headed overseas to Paris and then to Rome to work with renowned sculptors and architects.
Though Saint-Gaudens was immersed in his his art during the years of the Civil War and did not take up arms, the conflict nevertheless affected him deeply. His love of his adopted country is clear in his first commissioned work: a statue of Union Navy Admiral David Farragut in Madison Square Park. Saint-Gaudens also sculpted the Robert Gould Shaw Memorial on Boston Common in honor of the first African-American infantry unit.
On the strength of his extraordinary and healing work in patriotic sculpture, Saint-Gaudens was commissioned by President Theodore Roosevelt to redesign U.S. coins to reflect the nation’s position as a world leader in the new century. After two years of considered design work, America’s master sculptor completed the $20 gold Saint-Gaudens Double Eagle. In the 100 years since this iconic coin was released into circulation, it has never ceased to impress coin collectors and design lovers alike.
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