Augustus Saint-Gaudens was born in Dublin, Ireland, the son of a French shoemaker and an Irish mother. The family immigrated to America when Augustus was six months old. In 1861, Saint-Gaudens apprenticed to a Manhattan cameo cutter, learning to carve with precision, a skill that served him well throughout his career. In 1864, still working as a cameo cutter, Saint-Gaudens began to attend art classes at the Cooper Union. By 1866, he had transferred to the school of the National Academy of Design, where he studied with the painters Daniel Huntington and Emmanuel Leutze, and sculptors Launt Thompson and John Quincy Adams Ward.
In 1867, Saint-Gaudens left for Paris, studying first at the École Gratuite de Dessin (Petite École) with Georges Jacquot (1794–1874), a sculptor, and Alexandre Laemlein (1813–1871), a painter, etcher, and lithographer. This decorative-arts school (less well discussed in the literature, though still in existence today) was founded in 1767, as proposed by Jean-Jacques Bachelier, a painter at the porcelain manufactory at Sevres. Intended to prepare artists to work in the applied arts, the school taught the principles of geometry and of architecture and offered instruction in rendering the human figure, animals, flowers, and ornament, all copied from drawings and prints. It was free, offered a rigorous training, and was relatively easy to get into. Paul Cézanne, Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, and Auguste Rodin are among the school’s best-known students. In the 1870s, the school continued to attract a small but steady stream of Americans, including George De Forest Brush, J. Carroll Beckwith, and Julian Alden Weir. The turmoil in Paris caused by the Franco-Prussian War generated an exodus of foreign art students, including Saint-Gaudens, who went to Rome and remained there until he sailed for home in 1872.
After his first sojourn in Europe, Saint-Gaudens quickly established himself as the rising star of American sculpture. In 1873, he returned to Rome with his brother, Louis, who became his chief assistant. In 1874, Saint-Gaudens became engaged to Augusta Homer, whose mother was a first cousin to the artist Winslow Homer. By 1875, Saint-Gaudens was back in New York. In the years that followed he obtained major commissions and became a central figure in the New York artists’ community. He and Augusta married in 1877. In 1880, the couple’s son and only child, Homer Saint-Gaudens, was born. In 1881, the same year that his Farragut Monument in Madison Square Park was unveiled (with a pedestal designed by his friend, the architect Stanford White), Saint-Gaudens was elected President of the Society of American Artists. In the years that followed, Saint-Gaudens jumped from success to success.