I recently stumbled upon a controversy concerning the censorship of a work deemed obscene by the morally conservative. In the wake of the recent Smithsonian uproar concerning David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, I felt a comparison of the prudery worth examining.
The controversy arose in the 1890’s around a design proposal for the “prize medal” to be given out at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 . The designer was the illustrious Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and his graceful design was initially accepted; that was until a nasty caricature made a mockery of his work prompting conservative outcry.
Saint-Gaudens was reluctant to enter the competition according to his son Homer in The Reminiscences of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, but he was eventually persuaded ; ultimately coming up with a design that according to the actress Ellen Terry was “emblematical of young America”.
Young America was depicted as an ephebe, that loveliness of youth so admired by the Greeks, and enlightened society from the Renaissance onward.
Homer Saint-Gaudens goes into great detail concerning his fathers design,
John Singer Sargent
Carnegie museum of Art
Homer describes the “great distress of mind” the controversy caused his father. He also gives quite a vivid account of the design, “the obverse he created a design representing Columbus at his first landing on this hemisphere. On the reverse he placed a nude boy holding a shield which should bear the name of the recipient of the prize”.
The work was accepted, then as Homer claims ” came the catastrophe”. A perverse caricature of Saint-Gaudens work was created by the Page Belting Company of Concord, New Hampshire that was ” so villainous that the boy, who on the original stood as a bit of artistic idealism, appeared in all the vulgar indecency that can be conveyed by the worst connotation of the word nakedness”.
Priggish outrage was the result.
It hardly seems possible that this image (on the left) could have stirred such controversy.
For a closer look follow this link.
According to the New York Times, January 20th 1894, “protests were made on the grounds of indelicacy”, ultimately forcing Saint-Gaudens work to be “modified by draping the figure”. The changes were made under the direction of Secretary of the Treasury John Griffin Carlisle. Perhaps instead of the “obscene” ephebe, this jolly image should have been minted.
Apparently Barber had a long running, seemingly one-sided competitive tiff with Saint-Gaudens; he would ultimately be critical of another Saint-Gaudens design, the Double Eagle coin in 1908.
Envy is a terrible sin.
Artistic society was not pleased with the strong-arming of the morally righteous, the actress Ellen Terry was quite vocal in voicing her outrage.
Ellen Terry as Lady Macbeth
John Singer Sargent
Ellen Terry found the outrage an example of “extraordinary official Puritanism”. She was incredulous as to how this “beautiful little nude figure of a boy…emblematical of young America” could have caused offense.
Never underestimate the feeble and fearful mind.
She found the work that substituted Saint-Gaudens graceful work distasteful, “I think a commonplace wreath and some lettering were substituted”.
I was unable to find an image of the caricature which set off the tempest;but my friend Marge Miccio of Artifacts Gallery in my hometown of Trenton provided me with the sanitized medal. The image of Columbus is Saint-Gaudens work, for more info follow this link.
Thank you Marge!
The point being, Saint-Gaudens work IS a bit sensual, not unchaste; but certainly his art arouses (pun intended) our attention.
We all know his Diana,
Metropolitan Museum of Art
Clearly a fleshy object of beauty, created close to the time of the boy, yet the erotic overtones were tolerated.
The pretty boy, too much to handle apparently.
I have enjoyed once again poring over Saint-Gaudens work; in my research I stumbled upon this image of a very worldly Augustus with model, Just a bit unchaste.
portrait of Augustus Saint-Gaudens
Another fleshy work is Saint-Gaudens Hiawatha.
In the end I like to think that even if Saint-Gaudens did not share Wojnarowicz aesthetic sympathies he would have fought for the work to remain. A comrade in arms.
b. March 1st 1848
d. August 3rd 1907
In honor of Saint-Gaudens , I will enclose A Fire in My Belly in its entirety.
Have a great evening.