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DAVIDA: MODEL & MISTRESS OF AUGUSTUS SAINT-GAUDENS
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We agreed to visit Mr. Saint-Gaudens’s studio the following week.
The Sherwood Studio Building was located at Sixth Avenue and
Fifty-Seventh Street. Mr. Saint-Gaudens’s studio space inside the
building was small but filled with various pieces of plaster, mounds of
scattered sheets of paper with drawings, and a few men who were
working on smaller pieces. I gasped in awe and squeezed Mother’s hand
as I tried to take in all that was before me.
In the center of the room was a massive piece of white marble with
ladders and scaffolding around it. Two men hammered against chisels,
breaking off various sizes and shapes of the marble. Their work appeared
haphazard to my uneducated eyes, but the man directing them appeared
to have confidence in what they were doing. This man had the same
stature of Mr. Saint-Gaudens, except his hair was a dark brown and he
had no beard. There was a similar look and a nervous energy to his
Suddenly, we heard Mr. Saint-Gaudens’s voice saying, “You are
watching my brother Louis, who is my right-hand man and an artist in
his own right. Come—let me introduce you.” He extended his left arm,
inviting us to follow him.
As we neared, I could hear the brother’s baritone voice shouting
instructions: “Take a little more there” and “No, Samuel—strike the
chisel firmly but gently” and “That is good, very good.” He waved his
arms over and around as if he were conducting an orchestra. I found it
“Louis, my dear brother, stop your work for just a moment, please.”
Mr. Saint-Gaudens said these words with such love in his voice.
After introductions and some small talk, Mr. Saint-Gaudens went
on, “This is the young lady I was telling you about, the one I would like
to sketch. Do you agree she is perfect for the Vanderbilt project?”
The two brothers walked around me while never taking their eyes
off me. They exchanged their impressions and thoughts sometimes in
English, but mainly in French. I heard phrases such as “angular head,”
“high cheekbones,” and “vibrant eyes.”
I felt a mix of embarrassment and pride. My cheeks were warm, my
heart beat fast, and my knees began to shake. I had never experienced
such attention. Once again, I asked myself the same question: “Am I
I glanced over at Mother, who was watching and listening to the
brothers, trying to understand their words and gestures.
Then I was suddenly brought out of my dreamlike state when I
heard Mother say, “Come Albertina. It is time to go to work.” She
turned to the two artists and said, “Perhaps you will come to our home
on Sunday at four o’clock in the afternoon to discuss your ideas for
Albertina. I want my sister, Ingrid, and her husband to be a part of
whatever decision we make. They have lived in this country long enough
to have a good command of the English language. Besides, they are my
only family, and I trust their judgment in all things.”
Mr. Saint-Gaudens bowed and replied, “Of course, madam, I will
be there. But before you leave, I would like you both to meet my wife
and have some tea. Our home is just a short carriage ride from here.”
Mother responded, “We met Mrs. Saint-Gaudens at the Christmas
party, but the meeting was brief. We will be honored to meet her again.
However, we will not be able to stay long. We have been away long
enough, and we need to return to the inn. Time has by gone so rapidly.”
Mrs. Saint-Gaudens was an austere woman whose features showed
a permanent crease between her eyebrows even when she smiled. She
was tall and large boned, with penetrating brown eyes and a deep
dimple in her chin.
The year before, Mrs. Saint-Gaudens had given birth to a son. She
proudly held him in her arms upon greeting us.
“This is my son, Homer.”
She then quickly turned and handed the handsome little boy over
to his nanny.
From her thin lips, she expressed her pleasure in meeting us, albeit
stiffly. Perhaps that was her natural demeanor. But then again, perhaps
she was not pleased at all. Her rather plain dark-gray dress was unadorned
with any lace or jewelry, as would be expected of a woman of her
economic status. I wondered if she were in mourning, though Ingrid
had not shared about any death in the family.
Mrs. Saint-Gaudens and Mother exchanged pleasantries for a few
minutes. During this time, I was well aware of how often Mrs. Saint-Gaudens looked at me. My impression was that she did not like me. Her eyes were cold and her words were harsh when she spoke.