What you see: Abraham Lincoln: The Man, aka Standing Lincoln, a reduced-size version of a sculpture commissioned from Augustus Saint-Gaudens in the late 19th century. Sotheby’s estimates it at $600,000 to $900,000.
The expert: Charlotte Mitchell, specialist at Sotheby’s.
Who was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, and why was he chosen for this commission? He was regarded as the most celebrated American sculptor of his era. He was awarded the commission for a statue of Lincoln in Chicago due to his success with earlier Civil War-related projects, specifically the Farragut monument and the Sherman memorial in Manhattan. By the 1880s, he was a known American sculptor and a good choice.
Does the Standing Lincoln sculpture represent his first attempt at sculpting Abraham Lincoln? Yes, it does.
How did Augustus Saint-Gaudens approach the Lincoln commission? He prepared diligently before modeling the full-scale Lincoln. He studied his speeches and contemporary photography to get a sense of his physical likeness. Saint-Gaudens had encountered Lincoln twice: in 1861, before his presidency, and during his funeral procession in 1865. Those two moments stuck in his mind.
Saint-Gaudens managed to really capture Lincoln despite not being able to have him pose in his studio … It really does speak to his mastery of the field. He began work on the sculpture in the summer of 1885, in Cornish, New Hampshire. While he was there, he recruited a local farmer who stood around 6-foot-4 to serve as a likeness for Lincoln. Being able to reference a person like that was very helpful.
I understand Saint-Gaudens also had access to a cast of Lincoln’s face and both of his hands? I know he referenced them and did spend significant time with them. They enriched the authenticity of the finished work.
Do we know why the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue includes a chair? Why not just show him standing? The chair is meant to be a chair of state. I’m not sure if you can see it in the photo online, but there’s an eagle on the back of the chair, which represents Lincoln’s role as president of the United States. The chair is based on the throne of a priest from the third century in Athens. I do think it was helpful to include the chair of state to contextualize the moment Saint-Gaudens captured.
What moment does the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue capture? It shows a contemplative Lincoln, his head down, one foot stepping forward, and preparing to give a speech. You can tell he’s deep in thought, and preparing for what’s to come.
What is the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue like in person? It’s incredibly beautiful in person, with a rich brown patina that stands out and draws the eye in. You can see the details in Lincoln’s face and the emotion that Augustus Saint-Gaudens really captured. There are also details on the chair and the hands as well–the hands really read true-to-life.
What is your favorite detail of the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? It’s Saint-Gaudens’s ability to infuse the work with emotion, and his ability to capture Lincoln’s character. You see the figure looking down, deep in thought. I think the details capture where he was in this moment and reflects everything that happened in his presidency, and what he was preparing for.
It’s tough to give a hunk of bronze an inner life … It is. He does it very successfully here. It’s very true to life, down to the creases in his jacket.
How heavy is the reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? Do you need more than one person to move it? It’s solid bronze, and weighs about 230 pounds, so you do need more than one person to move it.
I understand that 17 casts of the reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue were made. Do we know how many survive, and how many are in private hands? There are approximately 17, based on records that his wife kept. In 1982, a publication on the artist identified the locations of 12 of the bronze casts. Most were in public collections and institutions, indicating that this is one of the last ones in private hands.
What was the roll of his wife, Augusta Saint-Gauden, in the production of the reduced-size version of Standing Lincoln? She oversaw the whole production process of the statues. She was very, very careful and kept good records. She only used his preferred foundries. Her advocacy on the behalf of her late husband contributed to the resulting quality of the bronzes and contributed to Saint-Gaudens’s legacy.
Of the 17 bronzes cast, 11 were done by Gorham, and six by Tiffany. Does that matter at all to collectors? Or are there so few examples available that it’s not an issue? With the Standing Lincoln, there’s no preference. This one was cast by Gorham in 1917, but it was probably sent to Tiffany [the boutique] to be sold based on the provenance for this example.
Was the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue cast in one piece, or was it cast in multiple pieces and soldered into a whole? It’s probable it was cast in several pieces, but cast from a single bronze pattern [a tray-like mold that would have contained all the components]. We’re certain different aspects were cast and joined. But the finishing is highly exquisite. We can’t see where the joins are.
Are the bronzes in the series numbered? No, not to my knowledge. I don’t think it was standard practice to number them.
What’s the patina like on the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue? And do the patinas on the other examples vary, or do they all share the same general coloration? This example presents with a beautiful warm brown patina with gold undertones. To my knowledge, it’s consistent with the others, but because I haven’t seen the other 16, I can’t confirm.
How often does this reduced-size Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue come to auction? This is actually the first time at auction, at least in the past 30 years. If you go online and check the art auction sales databases, you won’t find another one.
What condition is the Saint-Gaudens Lincoln statue in? I can tell you it’s in excellent condition. The work was recently waxed and cleaned as well, which is a good way to maintain the sculpture.
The entire run of the reduced-size Standing Lincoln statues were cast posthumously. Does that matter to collectors at all? Do they prefer Saint-Gaudens bronzes that were cast during his lifetime? The debate is moot here. It was only ever cast posthumously. It’s not a concern for people.
Why will this piece stick in your memory? It’s a true pleasure to handle works that are as rare as this. It could be the first and last time I handle one of these. Its meticulous details and exceptional quality resonate with me, and stick with me. It’s one of my favorite works in the sale.
How to bid: The Saint-Gaudens Lincoln sculpture is lot 40 in the American Art sale scheduled to take place at Sotheby’s New York on June 26, 2020.
By SHEILA GIBSON STOODLEY
Sheila Gibson Stoodley is a journalist and the author of The Hot Bid, which features intriguing lots coming up at auction.