We don’t know nearly as much about nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century American sculpture as we should. To understand why, it’s necessary to go back to two events in 1907: the August death of Augustus Saint-Gaudens in Cornish, New Hampshire, and Pablo Picasso’s completion of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon in Paris several weeks earlier. During his lifetime, Saint-Gaudens had attained the heights of renown, yet soon after his death his reputation and those of sculptors like him quickly fell into eclipse, swept aside by the revolution unleashed by Picasso and his modernist confrères.

This situation remained unchanged until 1976, when to celebrate the nation’s bicentennial the Whitney Museum of American Art organized “200 Years of American Sculpture,” a broad...


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