- The Washington Times - Friday, February 16, 2007

In less than two weeks, one of the country’s greatest public sculptures will go under wraps temporarily at the National Gallery of Art — for at least a year. The huge plaster Shaw Memorial in Gallery 66, now anchored by steel inside the wall, will be covered by a protective plywood enclosure while this end of the museum’s West Building undergoes renovation beginning March 2.

The impending closing of the galleries is a good reason to visit — or revisit — the powerful monument, sculpted by Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907), an American sculptor who excelled at expressive realism. His life-size military relief, a moving representation of courage, dignity and duty, commemorates the most famous unit of black soldiers to fight during the Civil War.

Led by Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who was white, the Massachusetts 54th Regiment marched from Boston to attack Fort Wagner in Charleston, S.C., where nearly half of the 600 men were captured, went missing or died. Shaw was one of the first to be killed. He and his fallen comrades, some of them former slaves, were buried in a mass grave.

The bravery of the 54th during the 1863 battle drew praise, even from Confederate soldiers, and inspired widespread enlistment of blacks in the Union forces. (In honor of Black History Month, the museum is presenting a lecture on imagery related to the Shaw sculpture by University of York history professor James Walvin tomorrow at 2 p.m. in the East Building auditorium.)

After the Civil War, a black businessman, Joshua B. Smith, initiated efforts to erect a memorial to the regiment in Boston, and Saint-Gaudens eventually was hired. The Irish-born artist, who was just starting his career in New York, began with an equestrian figure of Shaw in the Renaissance tradition and then added the soldiers as in a classical frieze. This arrangement wasn’t meant to express racial superiority but the reality that officers rode horses while the troops walked.

Shaw, set astride his horse, centers the scene, projecting outward from the relief to engage the viewer’s space. Just above him, an outstretched, angellike figure appears to be urging on the action, flying with the troops as they stride toward the drummer boy on the right side of the frame. These stoic soldiers, realistically portrayed with muskets, canteens and backpacks, are the real force of the artwork. Layered within the shallow platform, faces pressed together, they suggest unseen rows of soldiers beyond the relief and the solidarity of the black volunteers who courageously marched to fight for the Union.

“Its inexorable movement is what is so great about it,” says Alison Luchs, a sculpture curator at the National Gallery, standing before the gold-burnished monument. “Saint-Gaudens worked hard to convey the soldiers’ determination to go forward toward their fate. Even the bedrolls [on their backs] have the look of coiled springs to give a sense of tension.”

More significant, blacks are represented here as heroes. Each soldier is depicted as a noble individual, marking a radical departure from the racist stereotypes and generic images typically found in American art of the 1800s. A stickler for details, Saint-Gaudens worked hard to sculpt his relief with the facial features of real people. He hired black men to pose for him in his studio so he could make clay models of their heads.

Six of his 40 studies — just 16 were translated into the final relief — are displayed next to the memorial along with other preparatory works. (During the renovations, they will be moved to a ground-floor gallery to join two other pieces by Saint-Gaudens in the museum’s collection.)

The sculptor’s search for accuracy also extended to the men’s uniforms and equipment, which he modeled on Civil War designs, and he made a plaster cast of his own horse.

It took 14 years, most of his career, for Saint-Gaudens to finish the Shaw Memorial. In 1897, the work finally was cast into bronze and fitted into stonework on the edge of Boston Common. Yet even after the memorial was dedicated, the sculptor wasn’t satisfied and continued to tinker with plaster casts of his monument.

His fourth version was exhibited at the 1900 World’s Fair in Paris, where renowned French sculptor Auguste Rodin liked it so much that he tipped his hat in tribute. The piece then was shipped to Buffalo, N.Y., for the Pan American Exposition and, beginning in 1959, was exhibited at Saint-Gaudens’ studio in Cornish, N.H., now a national historic site. After undergoing a major conservation treatment, the monumental plaster cast was moved by the National Park Service to the National Gallery, where it has been on long-term loan since 1997.

WHAT: Shaw Memorial

WHERE: National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest

WHEN: On view through March 1; Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

ADMISSION: Free

PHONE: 202/737-4215

WEB SITE: www.nga.gov

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