|A scene from the film Glory|
The Saint-Gaudens creation, which celebrates the legacy of the all-black Civil War regiment and its 27-year-old military leader Robert Shaw (portrayed by Matthew Broderick in Glory), is considered by many to be one of the finest examples of 19th-century American sculpture.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the gilded plate model of the original bronze monument that is on display in Boston. That monument was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1897.
The 54th Massachusetts, one of the first all African-American regiment formed by the Union in the Civil War, rose to fame at the 1863 storming of Fort Wagner in Charleston, South Carolina. Although the 54th was defeated in that bloody battle and one-third of its members including Colonel Shaw were killed or seriously wounded, the conflict was seen as a turning point in the war. The valiant effort of the vanquished soldiers proved that African Americans' bravery and dedication to their country clearly equaled that of their white counterparts.
In addition to the huge model of the sculpture, the exhibit also features likenesses of some of the members of the 54th, as well as the famous African-Americans such as Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth who traveled the country recruiting members for the special unit. A poster in the exhibit displays that each member received a $100 bounty for enlisting and were paid $13 a month for their service.
When he created his sculpture, Saint-Gaudens used actual photographs of Shaw, but hired African-American men to pose in his studio for his depiction of the soldiers seen marching alongside their horse-mounted leader.
National Gallery exhibition expert Will Scott says Saint-Gaudens strongly believed that "real African-American men should be represented in the sculpture. He took pains to make sure the marching soldiers in the monument had recognizable faces."
Scott said the inclusion of the old photos of actual 54th Massachusetts members "completes the picture" that Saint-Gaudens was trying to achieve.
"Not a whole lot of men (at that mid-19th century time) had an image made of them," Scott said. "But these images can tell a whole lot about how they felt about themselves at the time of their service."
The Saint-Gaudens model was housed for 38 years at the artist's residence in New Hampshire. However, the National Park Service asked the National Gallery to restore and display the work, which in itself is quite masterful. The full exhibition, which also features works by other artists celebrating the Glory regiment, will be on display until Jan. 20.