There was a time not so long ago that I would not have taken the time to visit the National Gallery of Art (even though it's free), but I have seemingly grown to appreciate art more and more over the past few years. At a conference back in December I had heard that a version of the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Massachusetts Regiment Memorial was there on display, so while I was in D.C., I thought I'd go for a look see.
It is not enough to say that the work is impressive. This bas-relief sculpture was the work of Irish-born Augustus Saint-Gaudens. The original sculpture was cast in bronze and dedicated on May 31, 1897, and was placed on the Boston Common. At the time the bronze version was being unveiled, Saint-Gaudens was creating a plaster version; the one currently on display at the National Gallery of Art. There were very few actual differences in the two versions.
In 1902 the plaster version was purchased by the Buffalo Academy of Fine Arts and displayed until 1919 when it was covered by a wall. In 1949 the sculpture was donated to Saint-Gaudens National Historic Site in New Hampshire where it was displayed starting in 1959, exposed to the elements. In 1997 it was brought to the National Gallery of Art. After a thorough conservation that included removing old restoration work and filling in damaged plaster the sculpture was coated with a protective resin and placed on display.
The details in the sculpture are striking. From the soldiers' rifles, to their bedrolls and canteens, you can see the care that Saint-Gaudens took in his work. One of the most striking parts of the sculpture is the allegorical figure floating above Shaw and the troops. She carries an olive branch, a symbol of peace, and poppies, symbolic of death, sleep, and remembrance. The label explains that the figure serves "as mediator between the real an the ideal, between the present and the past, between action and remembrance. Her ethereal presence makes the earthly palpability of the soldiers all the more startling and keenly felt." One detail that Saint-Gaudens didn't get right was the date of the assault the 54th made on Battery Wagner. His sculpture has July 23, 1863 inscribed at the base but the attack actually occurred on July 18.
Although Saint-Gaudens produced a number of Civil War monuments before his death in 1907, the Shaw Memorial is probably his most moving public monument. It is indeed a fitting tribute to the brave men that it honors.