The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 22, Number 38, September 22, 2019, Article 11


Last week we announced three fall 2019 exhibits at Mashiko's Medialia Gallery in New York. One of them is "American Medalists in Paris", curated by Scott Miller from the collections of Jay Galst, Scott Miller, Ira Rezak, David Simpson, Donald Scarinci, and Frederic Withington. Scott kindly forwarded the Introduction from the exhibit catalog. Thanks! -Editor

1895 Susie Pratt Kennedy medal by Frederick MacMonnies
1895 Susie Pratt Kennedy medal by Frederick MacMonnies

Since the early days of the Republic, American artists generally traveled to Europe for formal training. Until the mid nineteenth century, England and Italy were their countries of choice, with American artists often remaining as expatriates.

Under Napoleon III’s Second Empire, France replaced Italy as the art center of Europe. As Americans began to travel to France, so did American artists. The rise of Paris as an artistic center coincided with a resurgence of interest in medallic creativity, both esthetically and technically. Long the domain of artisans who engraved images directly into steel, sculptors occasionally created medallions using traditional modeling techniques. The most notable of these was Pierre-Jean David, known as David D’Angers, who created a series of nearly 500 portrait medallions of contemporaries. It was the introduction of the pantographic reducing machine in the early 19th century that enabled any trained sculptor to produce a struck medal. However, it was not until the latter part of the century that such machines became sufficiently reliable and available for regular use. The popularity of medals also benefitted from changes in artistic style, beginning with the innovations introduced by Hubert Ponscarme, that led medals away from the standard, centered obverse portrait. Other factors included stronger economies and a better educated population, which more broadly supported leisure activities, such as the collection of artistic, scientific and decorative objects.

By the time the United States celebrated its centennial of independence in 1876, medals were still almost exclusively the work of artisan engravers. However, several American sculptors, such as Olin Levi Warner and Augustus Saint-Gaudens had already gone to France to study and were returning to work in this country. Over the next forty years Americans continued to enroll in French art schools and work with established sculptors and medalists. They eventually started their own studios and helped to found what can be described as an American School of Medallic Art, reflecting the influence of French medalists, but emphasizing American interests and culture, such as American history, industrial and civic achievements, idealized, farm fresh portraiture, and native, Indian culture. The first sculptor to spread the knowledge learned in France was Augustus Saint-Gaudens, whose students constituted a large number of prominent medallic artists in the United States.

Besides the many studio assistants employed by Saint-Gaudens over the years, the Cornish Art Colony attracted some of the major, and sometimes minor artists of the period leading up to World War I. Although Augustus Saint-Gaudens remained the most widely known and influential member, sculptors Daniel Chester French, Laura Gardin Fraser, Frances Grimes, and Paul Manship were also associated with the colony, as were the dancer Isadora Duncan, and artists Maxfield Parrish and Kenyon Cox; even actress Ethel Barrymore came to Cornish in 1906. The many leading figures in the arts present at the Cornish Colony contributed towards an exchange of ideas and approaches that shaped American art for years to come.

As is almost always the case with change, and a modernization of technology, there was a mixture of praise and criticism for the new approach to medallic art. Those with a more traditional view, and these seem mostly to have been German, decried the new methods, claiming that the reducing machine led to a loss of detail that resulted from a failure to execute the design in a 1:1 scale. Other, more traditional engravers, undoubtedly saw a threat to their livelihood, which may help account for the often cited animosity between United States Mint engravers and private sculptors commissioned to design coins. To be fair, however, while sculptors usually had greater artistic ability, their lack of technical expertise often created almost insurmountable problems in the minting of coins, but a drawback of lesser concern in the production of artistic medals.

Despite the grumbling from mint engravers, most artists and collectors embraced the new techniques, which allowed greater freedom for medal designers. Rather than being trained as die engravers, medalists were now, typically sculptors, trained in modeling. This brought new ideas to the medal world. Beginning in Europe, the traditional concept of medals as something commemorative expanded to include objects that were purely aesthetic and better reflected current design. Along with the change in medal production, came the organization of art medal societies, which encouraged both the production and collecting of the newer medallic forms.

In the United States, the new production techniques and a growing interest in art resulted in the dawning of a golden age of medals. Confident in the nation’s growing economic and political strength and able to utilize the services of trained sculptors, wealthy individuals, companies, institutions, and local governments commissioned medals for every conceivable reason.

1915 Rosemary Hall 25th Anniversary medal by Laura Garden Fraser 1919 Joseph Pennell medal by John Flanagan
LEFT: 1915 Rosemary Hall 25th Anniversary medal by Laura Garden Fraser
RIGHT: 1919 Joseph Pennell medal by John Flanagan

With the centennial celebration in 1876, Americans took an increasing interest in their own history. While many commemorative medals celebrated centennials of Revolutionary War events, there was no significant improvement in the artistic quality of medals until 1889 with the issuance of Washington inauguration centennial medal, designed by Augustus Saint-Gaudens and modeled by Philip Martiny. Heavily influenced by medals of the renaissance, this was also one of only a very small number of cast medals that were produced in large numbers for popular sale.

Largely trained in France and influenced by medalists such as Henri Chapu and Oscar Roty, American sculptors soon became proficient in the new medium. As equipment became available, the number of medals produced in the United States grew. So too, did the number of firms specializing in medals, the most prominent being the Medallic Art Company, known for its high quality of artistry and production methods. Whitehead and Hoag, previously known for manufacturing pin back buttons, became a prolific manufacturer of popular medals. Tiffany & Co. also enjoyed a reputation for high quality medals, as did the United States Mint.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, The United States had not yet come to appreciate the non-commemorative medals which were then so popular in Europe. Nearly all of these early medals were the result of commissions, and reflected America’s view that that it had become the political and economic successor to the great Renaissance princes. As a result, portraits of the wealthy, and medals that commemorated industrial or civic achievements were popular.

The undoubted leader in privately commissioning medals was the American Numismatic Society. Of the six medals it issued between 1865 and 1890, the Society, three required the services of a foreign engraver - Lea Ahlborn of the Royal Mint of Sweden. Beginning in 1893, as the quality of American medallic art improved, commissions were increasingly given to American artists, now capable of competing with the finest European sculptors. Over the next half century, many of the country’s finest sculptors better known for their work in the round, such as Daniel Chester French, Frederick MacMonnies, Gutzon Borglum, Anna Hyatt Huntington, and Adolph Weinman, all received commissions from the Society, as did medallic sculptors, such as Victor D. Brenner and John Flanagan.

While the issuance of medals by the American Numismatic Society proceeded at a steady pace, at least partly due to the support of wealthy and influential collectors, such as J. Sanford Saltus, Edward D. Adams and George Kunz, the Society’s attempt to create a School for Coin and Medal Designing was an abysmal failure. First proposed by ANS president Andrew Zabriskie in 1898, the school, established two years later with the collaboration of the National Academy of Design, only existed until 1905. Enrollment never exceeded ten students, and sometimes had as few as two or three. As a result, instruction in medallic sculpture continued primarily in established studios and art schools, including the Beaux-Arts Institute of Design, founded in 1916 for the training of architects and artists consistent with the teachings of the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

In the first decade of the 20th century, medals continued to be understood and commissioned as purely commemorative objects. This would change in 1909, when Charles De Kay and Robert Hewitt, Jr., following the example set by European countries, such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Austria, introduced to America the concept of the art medal society. Formally known as the Circle of Friends of the Medallion, the Circle issued two medals a year, which were housed in cloth bound books with several pages of explanatory text. The artistic quality of the medals was high, and included work by outstanding medallists, including John Flanagan, Victor D. Brenner, and Paul Manship. Sigurd Neandross, on the other hand, who created the 8th issue, “The Ocean”, probably never produced another medal. This lone example of Neandross’s medallic work very much illustrates how the new technology expanded the design of medals to a larger group of sculptors. With a membership of about 400, the Circle of Friends only lasted about six years. However, its influence extended much longer, as it was the inspiration for the Society of Medalists which, beginning in 1930, issued art medals for more than half a century.

I was not familiar with the School for Coin and Medal Designing. Such a shame it didn't take root and thrive. Perhaps it was just an idea ahead of its time. It would be an interesting topic for a fresh research article. There are multiple references to the "School for Coin and Medal Designing and Die Cutting" in the publications and archives of the American Numismatic Society. -Editor

To read the earlier E-Sylum article, see:

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Wayne Homren, Editor

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