“I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness. Would it be possible, without asking permission of Congress, to employ a man like Saint-Gaudens to give us a coinage that would have some beauty?”—President Theodore Roosevelt, 1904
Let’s face it, chances are your favorite coin designs have been created or influenced by one man, Augustus Saint-Gaudens. Chosen by President Roosevelt to rid the country of the “atrocious hideousness” that plagued the coinage of the time, he’s credited with catalyzing a movement that collectors affectionately refer to as the “Renaissance of American coinage.”
Augustus Saint-Gaudens (1848-1907)
Saint-Gaudens created over 150 works of art! Some of his more acclaimed works include the highly regarded Robert Gould Shaw Memorial and the Standing Lincoln memorial. When it comes to the world of coinage, his designs make even the most experienced collectors gawk at their beauty.
Saint-Gaudens mentored many of our favorite artists and sculptors of the early 20th century. Unfortunately, he lost his battle with cancer before getting to see his designs go into circulation. But in 1932, the public would observe the magnitude of his legacy; nearly every denomination of American coinage (5¢, 10¢, 25¢, 50¢, $2.50, $5, $10, and $20), excluding only the penny and silver dollar sported a design created by him or one of his pupils.
So let’s pay homage to America’s favorite coin designer and check out the artists that chose to carry on his legacy.
Bela Lyon Pratt (1867-1917)
Developing his technique as an apprentice to Saint-Gaudens, Pratt became a prolific designer in his own right. The innovative sculptor even melded intaglio design with American coinage, resulting in his $5 and $2.50 gold pieces.
He possessed so much of his mentor’s requisite skill that he was granted a contract for personifying Art and Science in sculpture at the Boston Public Library, an honor initially reserved for Saint-Gaudens before his passing.
Anthony de Francisci (1887-1964)
An Italian native, de Francisci arrived in America in 1905 to find an ill-stricken Saint-Gaudens. Fortunately, he was mentored by two of Saint-Gaudens’ star pupils, James Earle Fraser and Adolph A. Weinman (as well as Standing Liberty quarter designer Hermon MacNeil). As an inexperienced designer, de Francisci won the design competition for the new silver Peace Dollar in 1920. The newbie’s designs were chosen over those of his mentors Weinman and MacNeil, as well as notable designers John Flanagan (Washington quarter) and Victor Brenner (Lincoln cent).
Adolph A. Weinman (1870-1952)
Arriving to America as a teenager, the German Weinman began studying under Saint-Gaudens at the Art Students League of New York. In 1904, Weinman opened his own studio. Weinman’s skill would manifest in the design of two renowned U.S. coins, the Walking Liberty half dollar and Winged Liberty (Mercury) dime. In 1905, Weinman continued the work of his ailing mentor (Saint-Gaudens had grown too ill and weak to finish the project), crafting the physical model of President Roosevelt’s Inaugural Medal.
His decision to mix the emotional appeal of Art Deco with Neoclassicism is also evidence of Saint-Gaudens’ influence. Although Weinman preferred to identify as an architectural sculptor, he will always be remembered as an exceptional medalist.
John Flanagan (1865-1952)
Flanagan’s medallic and relief sculptures are the epitome of excellence. He began as an assistant to Saint-Gaudens before taking his studies to the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. In Paris, he worked with Frederick MacMonnies (another former assistant of Saint-Gaudens) on a sculpture for the Columbian Fountain for Chicago’s 1893 World’s Fair.
He also designed the Washington quarter in commemoration of the two hundredth anniversary of George Washington’s birth. Flanagan’s artwork has become the standard for today’s circulating quarter dollar coins. His thirteen medals being housed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City serve as a testament to his legacy.
James Earle Fraser (1876-1953)
As a child living on Dakota’s frontier, Fraser practiced sculpting limestone into fantastic shapes. His skill eventually brought him to the famous art school Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris, where he would meet and become chief studio assistant to Saint-Gaudens. In 1892, he assisted Saint-Gaudens in the creation of General William T. Sherman’s Memorial for New York’s Central Park. In 1913, his “Buffalo nickel” design was chosen for the five-cent coin.
Following a glowing recommendation by Saint-Gaudens, Fraser was commissioned to create Roosevelt’s Vice Presidential bust for the U.S. Senate chambers. He also designed monuments for Federal buildings across the nation’s capital. His work in government medals is highlighted by the WWI Victory Medal and the U.S. Department of the Navy’s Navy Cross, the second highest medal that can be awarded for an act of valor.
The measure of a great artist is in the impact of his work; the measure of that impact is in its ability to conjure emotions within the observer. Not only did Saint-Gaudens manage to inspire a bevy of talented artists, he continues to foster our love of art through the many incarnations of his influence.
by Shaquille Brissett