An apprenticeship with cameo-carvers as a teenager fostered Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s mastery of portrait relief sculpture. Among the first American sculptors to choose study in France rather than Italy, Saint-Gaudens traveled in 1870 to Paris, the center of a revival of bronze sculpture and Renaissance naturalism. He won admission to the École des Beaux-Arts. During a trip to Italy he was deeply impressed by early Renaissance art. Saint-Gaudens’s return to New York in 1872 heralded a turning point in American sculpture: the previous generation of sculptors had lived as expatriates. Saint-Gaudens became the most influential sculptor in America in the Beaux-Arts style. His best-known monumental commissions include memorials to Generals Robert Gould Shaw and William Tecumseh Sherman.
"Stanley Matthews and His Wife Mary" is a fine example of Saint-Gaudens’s low-relief portraiture, characterized by subtle variations in the depth of the relief to create an illusion of space. His portrait plaques are also distinguished by delicate linear treatment and precise ornamentation. The three-quarter viewpoint employed here, presumably made necessary by the use of photographs, is less typical.
Cincinnati jurist Stanley Matthews graduated in 1840 from Kenyon College, where a marble version of this relief is on display. In 1881, after serving on the bench in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas, Matthews ascended to the United States Supreme Court. On this plaque Matthews appears with his second wife, Mary Theaker of Washington, D.C., whom he married in 1887. Matthews died in 1889. His daughter Jane commissioned the portrait in 1903.