The central figure in Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s monument to the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the first African American troop to fight in the Union army, is a handsome young white man whose uniform is straining at the buttons over his strongly built figure. Col. Robert Gould Shaw, who led the regiment into a maelstrom of Confederate fire 150 years ago this summer, was ­Harvard-educated and came from an elite family of Boston abolitionists. We know exactly what he looked like from a photograph, showing him seated at a table, with a wispy mustache and one hand draped almost languidly into his lap.

Since 1997, the National Gallery of Art has held a version of the Saint-Gaudens memorial, made of plaster coated to look like metal, and created after the bronze monument that stands on the edge of the Boston Common. A new exhibition looks more closely at what is considered one of the first great masterpieces of American sculpture, focusing not just on the heroic figure of Shaw, but on the anonymous African American figures behind him.

If Saint-Gaudens had been uncommonly enterprising, he might have discovered what Shaw’s troops looked like, too. But none of the black soldiers marching next to Shaw in the memorial — which depicts events celebrated in the 1989 film “Glory,” starring Denzel Washington — were based on surviving photographs of the actual men who served under him. Black soldiers, despite their uncertain status and unequal pay, also had access to the camera, and a number of soldiers from the ill-fated 54th Massachusetts had portraits made, before and after a battle on July 18, 1863, which decimated their ranks. But for his celebrated masterpiece, ­Saint-Gaudens relied on unknown models who posed for him decades after the war.

And so the Shaw Memorial, named for the young white officer who died in the 1863 battle of Fort Wagner, is a mix of the real and the invented, and the two categories seem to emphasize the hierarchy of officers over soldiers, white over black, larger-than-life hero over cannon fodder.

It was in part a desire to know more about those men, says co-curator and photography scholar Sarah Greenough, that inspired the exhibition, “Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial.”

“I thought it would be fascinating to find out who these people were and what they looked like,” says Greenough, who worked with Nancy Anderson on the project. The exhibition is divided into two rooms, one filled with photographs depicting the men and women who helped organize the regiment, the men who fought in it and the officers who led it. The other room focuses on Saint-Gaudens’s sculpture, including fascinating early models, small busts made in preparation for the final work, and a few works that trace the memorial’s lasting influence in American cultural life.

The sesquicentennial

“It is a bit of an unusual show for us,” says Greenough. She’s right. Visitors may well think they are in another museum, say the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, rather than the National Gallery. There are books, lithographs and memorabilia, a rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, an original enlistment roll for the 54th and other documents, including one that details the missing and killed after the unit’s fateful assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina. A letter to Shaw’s family with news of his death is both blunt and exalted: “I regret to inform you that Col Shaw is killed,” it begins, and ends, “Neither Greece nor Rome can excell his heroism.”

This may strike some as a rather transparent effort by the National Gallery to participate in the Civil War sesquicentennial frenzy. But if visitors buy the catalogue and dig into the larger visual questions, the show makes more sense in an art gallery. Photography and memorials are both intensely social and popular media, the former raising questions of identity and self-presentation, the latter forcing us to consider the same issues on a collective scale. The very existence of the 54th Massachusetts was about redefining African Americans as fully vested members of the body politic. As Frederick Douglass, whose sons served in the 54th, said of the African American soldier, “Let him get an eagle on his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on the earth or under the earth which can deny that he has earned the right of citizenship in the United States.”

So the exhibition is a rare chance to study early photographs in a concentrated way: By looking at multiple images of a discrete group of people, made around the same time and for a similar purpose. That focus allows Greenough to speculate well beyond the silence of the photograph, including some haunting images of young musicians who look like they should be in the Boy Scouts, not the Union Army. The boys appear awkward, even downcast, and the natural assumption is that they are terrified or reluctant warriors. But by studying other images likely made at the studio of photographer H.C. Foster, Greenough presents a tentative theory: “The fact that all of these men, two of whom were sergeants, appear just as wary as the youngest drummer boy, raises the possibility that Foster’s studio may have not been welcoming to African American members of the 54th.”

This is intriguing, and an unlikely insight if the photographs are studied individually and out of their social context.

Memorial to sacrifice

The centerpiece of the exhibit is the memorial itself, built into a wall in the American galleries. The National Gallery’s version of the memorial is made of plaster, coated to appear as if it’s made of metal. Saint-Gaudens continued work on the subject even after he finished casting the Boston memorial, so the version seen in Washington contains later refinements. It was also relatively portable, and in 1900 it was included in the U.S. national pavilion at the Paris Universal Exposition. Rodin praised it, and Saint-Gaudens took the exposition’s grand prize for sculpture.

So “Tell It With Pride” manifests various desires for affirmation: Abolitionists seeking a heroic ideal for newly freed slaves; young African American men looking for dignity in a soldier’s uniform; and an artist competing for accolades among his peers. The memorial itself engages with all of these and with the even more complicated state of racial politics in the late 19th century. Saint-Gaudens might have honored Shaw by depicting him alone, on horseback, but sought a more complex, egalitarian form. Shaw is modeled almost fully in the round (the horseback figure isn’t quite finished on one side, where it connects to the other figures), and while he dominates the scene, he is not the sole figure represented. This reflected the wishes of Shaw’s descendants and sponsors of the memorial, who wanted it to memorialize the larger sacrifice of the unit and its role in African American history.

It was, for the time, an innovative work of memorial sculpture, not quite fully free-standing, not quite a bas-relief, and the presence of black soldiers and a white officer in one scene was equally controversial. The French admired it with the slightly blind enthusiasm of a country deeply embroiled in ugly colonial ventures, but still officially dedicated to liberty, equality and brotherhood.

An early 1883 sketch for the memorial, modeled in plaster, shows how radical some of Saint-Gaudens’s ideas were. In this version, a lone figure sits outside the frame of the bas-relief, as if he or she has wandered in from the land of the living to contemplate the memory of the dead. The idea didn’t make it into the final memorial, though one sees echoes of it in Frank Gehry’s design for the Eisenhower Memorial, which includes a figure of the young Eisenhower contemplating his later accomplishments. Even today, the use of this kind of “meta-narrative” figure in a public memorial is contentious.

Saint-Gaudens may have dropped that particular detail, but he played other games with the frame. From one angle, the soldiers seemed squashed into an unnaturally confined space, while from another it seems nothing could contain their forward-driving energy.

Consider some of the dates emphasized in Lindsay Harris’s excellent catalogue essay: In 1896, the Supreme Court enshrined segregation as legal policy in Plessy v. Ferguson; in 1895 Booker T. Washington proposed the quiescent “Atlanta Compromise,” which offered white America an unholy bargain: African Americans would submit to segregation and inequality in exchange for basic education and economic advancement. The memorial was unveiled in 1897.

What is being celebrated? Heroism and equality, or merely loyalty and service? Different people likely saw different things. The memorial remains, like so many works of art and literature, caught in the continuum of time, as good as it could be given the moment it was made.

Tell It With Pride: The 54th Massachusetts Regiment and Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ Shaw Memorial

Opens on Sunday in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. For more information visit