Portrait of an artist: PBS documentary traces life of Saint-Gaudens

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Kyla Brewer / TV Media
The statue of Abraham Lincoln by American master Augusten Saint-Gaudens

The statue of Abraham Lincoln by American master Augusten Saint-Gaudens

With silly gags and often predictable action, TV is often criticized for being cliched and corny entertainment.

Luckily, PBS has a reputation for injecting a little art and culture into the television landscape, and the network's latest offering takes a look at a celebrated American artist.

End 2009 with an art history lesson by taking in "Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Master of American Sculpture," premiering Sunday, Dec. 27, on most PBS stations (check your local listings). Award-winning director and producer Paul Sanderson helmed the documentary, which examines the life of an extremely important artist in American history.

Pulitzer Prize-winning author David McCullough has called the production "first rate -- beautifully composed, intelligent and, most important of all, it brings Saint-Gaudens centre stage, right where he belongs, as one of the most gifted and powerful artists of his time."

Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907) was an American sculptor unparalleled in his influence in the period. With more than 100 works to his credit, he is considered to be the nation's premiere sculptor of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

President Teddy Roosevelt once claimed there was no greater artistic genius in the world.

Narrated by actor Victor Garber, the film traces his rise to the pinnacle of the art world, from his birth in Dublin, Ireland. As an infant, his French father and Irish mother moved the family to New York, and by the time he was 13, he was apprenticing as a cameo cutter.

His passion for sculpture led him to study at both the Cooper Union and National Academy of Design before heading overseas to become one of the first Americans to study sculpture in Paris, along with Olin Levi Warner and Howard Roberts.

After attending Ecole des Beaux-Arts, he headed to Rome, where he continued to work as a cameo cutter while copying famous statues for commission.

By the time he settled back in New York in 1875, he was a true artist. He quickly formed friendships with other influential figures, including architects Henry Hobson Richardson, Stanford White, Charles Follum McKim and painter John La Farge. Together, these men prompted an American artistic renaissance.

He and White worked together on what is perhaps the most important creation of his early career. In 1880, Saint-Gaudens fashioned a monument to Admiral David Farragut to be housed in Madison Square Garden. White designed the base for the work.

He rubbed elbows with the Vanderbilts while working with La Farge in 1881, and soon after created the famous statue of Abraham Lincoln for Lincoln Park in Chicago. In 1891, he presented what is considered his greatest work: a memorial to Mrs. Henry Adams in Rock Creek Cemetery in Washington, D.C.

Though many people still might not recognize the name, millions have admired Saint-Gaudens work. A prolific artist, he created the Adams Memorial in Washington, D.C., the Philadelphia Museum of Art's Diana, the Sherman Monument in Manhattan, the Shaw Memorial on Boston Common and the Standing Lincoln in Chicago.

"Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Master of American Sculpture" brings viewers an incredible look at these works, thanks to cutting-edge HD cameras. As the film recounts the story of the artist's life, experts present in-depth studies of several of his major works.   

Saint-Gaudens showed talent at so many levels, and his art ranged in size from huge public monuments to small portraits in relief. He even tried his hand at creating art for coins, perhaps a throwback to his days working on cameos. Many consider his design for the 1907 $20 American gold piece the nation's most beautiful coin ever.

The PBS documentary also includes interviews with renowned art historians and politicians. Yale professor Vincent Scully and Princeton University's John Wilmerding talk about the sculptor's work and how it changed the face of American art. Admirer former secretary of state Gen. Colin Powell is also interviewed in the film.

Through in-depth studies, interviews and stunning cinematography, "Augustus Saint-Gaudens: Master of American Sculpture" illustrates why he is a leader in the art world, often credited as being the first to integrate architecture, landscape design and monumental sculpture. He is frequently compared to the great artists of the Italian Renaissance, and has garnered praise for keeping his style uniquely American, despite its root in classical tradition.

Those wishing to explore Saint-Gaudens's life and work further can visit The Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in Cornish, N.H. There, art enthusiasts will find the largest collection of his works, along with his home, studios and garden.

Though Saint-Gaudens passed away in 1907, his works still resonate with art lovers, amateur and professional. The Saint-Gaudens Memorial, incorporated in 1919, has joined forces with the Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site to keep his sculptures and artwork at the forefront of the American art scene.