Augustus Saint-Gaudens Hiawatha in clay, 1871-1872; this marble carving, 1874, 7 feet 9 inches high, including pedestal [detail]
Barry and I were leaving the Metropolitan Museum cafe in the American Wing yesterday when we passed the Saint-Gaudens marble "Hiawatha". I must have passed it any number of times before, but now I found myself zeroing in on the beautifully-modeled torso of this noble young man, created by an artist who was only about 23 himself when he began the work in clay. Then, thinking about the date, 1870, I thought about the time and geography of the work's origins.
In the very midst of the beginnings of the last segment of our protracted Indian wars, a very young Augustus Saint-Gaudens, fled Paris, where he had studied for three years, on the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. He settled in Rome in late 1870 where he began work on "Hiawatha", his first full-length statue. His inspiration was the legendary Chippewa chief and founder of the Iroquois confederacy who was the main protagonist in Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's enormously popular 1955 poem, "The Song of Hiawatha"*.
In 1870 Saint-Gaudens' native country was still nursing the wounds of the Civil War; France and Germany were engaged in a duel which quickly realized the end of one empire and the birth of another, both with enormous consequences which continue today; the Italian army had crossed the papal frontier (finally completing the wars for unification), in the same month the artist arrived in Rome. Saint-Gaudens however was otherwise engaged.
The War Between the States may have ended (he had been too young to participate), but there was hardly going to be any peace on the other side of the Atlantic, where twenty more years of wars directly impacted - in fact completely devastated - the people represented in his early masterpiece.
Americans were eager to settle the lands which had been opened up in the west, and Civil War veterans, adventurers and misfits were volunteering to secure their right to be there, defending it from the legitimate claims of the peoples we were already making into legends and heroes. The United States was determined to fulfill its own peoples' "manifest destiny" and would not allow what remained of native American civilizations to stand in the way of its claim to the "Land of Many Uses". In spite of occasional sensational - and hugely popularized - news events like "Custer's Last Stand"**, the full horror of these last Indian Wars was largely removed from the consciousness of Americans back east, much as in the case of our own wars today.
It was all over by 1890: Providence had made the entire country safe for the American Empire, but the devil had taken the hindmost; the Indian was now almost gone, and almost forgotten, except where and how it served the victors to remember him.
But it is a beautiful statue.
The fame and legend attached to both the poem and its subject continued well into the 20th century: I remember my class being told in grade school to memorize the trochaic tetrameter of this Longfellow poem, and we barely questioned the assignment (I never got beyond a few stanzas).
When my own family drove west in the big Buick on a long vacation 55 years ago, the Little Big Horn ranked extremely high on our own list of "must sees", and in fact, I've never forgotten my impressions of that sad, and then still very desolate, little-visited place.