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Setting the Stage


Some of the leading characteristics of the Gilded Age included growing industrialization, entrepreneurial optimism, Social Darwinism, and materialism. Importance was placed on personal wealth and the ability to live in high style. Patronage—the support of artists through major commissions and wealthy clients—while not new, was an important aspect of the Gilded Age.

The arts of the Gilded Age reflected a changing and emerging nation on the world scene. The creation of public monuments, great and lavish public spaces, and splendidly decorated homes that looked more like palaces demonstrated the growing belief among many Americans that the United States was the heir to the great cultural traditions of Europe. The cultural aspects of the Gilded Age sometimes are referred to as the "American Renaissance." According to architectural historian Richard Guy Wilson, "the artist played a leading role. He could provide a setting of leisured elegance bearing the patina of class and taste for people who were frequently one generation removed from overalls and shovel. Fittingly, the artist designed the currency of capitalism—Augustus Saint-Gaudens did the ten and twenty dollar gold pieces. The artist did not play the avant-garde role, rebelling against society and the inequalities of wealth. Rather he became part of the elite...."¹

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), renowned 19th-century American sculptor, was a member of this elite. His artistic training and talent ensured his place in Gilded Age society. He created nearly 150 sculptures during a career that spanned three decades. His commissions ranged from large public statues to U.S. gold coins to bas-reliefs for prominent private clients.

¹Richard Guy Wilson, et al., "The Great Civilization," The American Renaissance (New York: Pantheon, 1979).

 

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