Archive for December, 2011

Pegasus symbol on medal by Laura Gardin Fraser

Pegasus symbol on medal by Laura Gardin Fraser

Unicorns may be more popular as art pins and pendants than the Winged Horse Pegasus. But in medallic art Pegasus flies higher. This was evident recently as Pegasus medal specimens were gathered to illustrate the 2012 Medallic Art Company annual calendar. More than the 12 different specimens in the firm’s medallic archives were found to showcase one for each month in 2012.

Pegasus is popular as a device on medals, and for good reason. Pegasus is the symbol of Inspiration for artists, The Muse to prompt their actions, the Courser to guide their creations. Pegasus with his outstretched wings is an ideal element to feature on a medal – not only for  the shape of its wings fitting well in a circle – but also for the  universal understanding as a symbol for Inspiration for all artists, and for all art media.

But he hasn’t always been such a symbol. A mythical creature in Greek mythology, Pegasus was ordered by Zeus to bring lightning and thunder to Olympus according to mythological chronicles. By the Middle Ages, Pegasus became more a symbol of Wisdom and Fame.

Only in modern time is his relationship with mythical Muses recalled with influence on poetry. Muses were said to inspire poetry, and from this the Winged Horse became an inspirational symbol for all artists, for all art forms, music, painting, and, of course, sculpture and medallic art, in addition to poetry.

Medallic artists have shown Pegasus flying in the air without a ground line – the wings can be conveniently shaped to fit the curve of a circular medal. Or Pegasus can be shown with a globe, flying over or touching the globe. Paul Manship shows his Pegasus symbol over the sun on two of his medals. A Poetry Society Medal shows a flying Pegasus over a single star.

For the Architectural League of New York Frank Eliscu displays Pegasus in repose atop a three-column pillar. He fashioned Pegasus’ head in regardant pose looking back over his wings.

Ernest Haswell fashions Pegasus flying over what looks like gears. This is in contrast to Albino Manca’s flying Pegasus in a Suermanish pose leaping over tall buildings for a medal in honor of another sculptor, Henry Hering. This was for the National Sculpture Society award medal bearing Hering’s name.

Several medallic artists researched Pegasus early mythological origin where Greek hero Bellerophon captured Pegasus and rode bareback into battle defeating the dreaded monster Chimera. Pegasus helped the Good Guys win that combat.

For one of those Manship medals with Pegasus over the sun, a musician is shown riding the Winged Steed. We know it is a musician because he is holding a lyre. On the reverse an artist is shown holding a pallet.  Manship was a master of symbols and tied in all the arts together with flawless use of only three symbols for this Art Directors Club Medal creation.

Manship's Pegasus medal for the St Paul Institute

Manship’s Pegasus medal for the St Paul Institute

For that other Manship medal the sun serves as a reserve – a circular cartouche – where a recipients’ name can be engraved on the struck award medal. That’s the reverse iconography. The obverse shows a kneeling female with lyre again in one hand, and a winged angel statue in the other. The repetition of the winged image on both obverse and reverse is Great Medallic Art. One could expect no less from Manship in this medal for the art organization, Saint Paul Institute.

Rene Chambellan displays Pegasus in an ethereal view amid clouds as a scientist below peers in a microscope. A similar view of Pegasus in clouds is shown by Laura Gardin Fraser for the Centennial Medal of the American Numismatic Society in 1858.

Forty years earlier for the same organization sculptor Chester Beach created the Peace of Versailles Medal ending World War I. Beach shows Pegasus being led by a male and female figure. Bellerophon is shown astride Pegasus as symbol of Victory from the early Greek mythological history. That’s good use of mythical symbols.

The most artistic use of Pegasus in this group, however, is Marcel Jovine’s Brookgreen Gardens Medal. The sculptor is shown carving the head of Pegasus on the obverse with mallet and chisel. It’s a close-up view with the horse’s mane flying in all directions. Jovine modeled a nose and mouth on the horse that’s uncanny, it’s so realistic. The reverse is dominated by the wings that curve around half the medal’s circumference.

First two-part medal. I have saved a favorite for the last. It is the first two-part medal issued in America. Created by Frank Eliscu at the top of his career, he modeled a Pegasus for the Plant Dedication Medal for Medallic Art Company’s new headquarters in Danbury, Connecticut.

This led, with further Inspiration, a year later to create the two-part medal shown here. The obverse shows the Hand of God releasing Pegasus. Inspiration is released for the use of Man is the symbolism implied here.

The two interface surfaces – shown when the medal is parted into the two halves – displays Pegasus in fine flying form. The two surfaces are convex and concave reliefs of the same image, both made from a single sculptural model.

The reverse shows Man and Inspiration in harmony. The heads of both are shown in artistic repose. The harmony is accomplished, the creativity is produced, the work is done.

I liked that medal so well, I wrote the leaflet that accompanied the medal when issued. I even signed my name to it. That was the only leaflet among dozens I wrote for company medals that I signed. In that leaflet I wrote about the first two-part medals in Europe, artist Eliscu’s efforts in creating the model and the symbolism represented in the design. I mentioned all the firsts the firm had issued before.

I posted about this medal along with the press release here.

Here is how I ended the leaflet:

So innovation is not new to Medallic Art Company. It is proud to have produced Frank Eliscu’s Inspiration medal and to have added it to a growing list of famous firsts. Here, then, is America’s first multi-part medal, inspired by Inspiration itself, stimulated by the invention of a new medallic art form in Europe, created by a talented and gifted artist in Connecticut.

It remains only for art lovers and collectors the world over to accept it for what it is, a thing of beauty and a joy forever!


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The human form – face or figure – is the most used device on coins and medals. These images were the photographs of human beings long before photography was born. The portraits found on some early coins and medals are often the only known contemporary images of some important people of history – the kings and queens, the movers and shakers of the most important events of humankind prior to the mid-eighteenth century.

Teddy Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt, part of the Hall of Fame of Great Americans Series

Portraiture appeared on coins with the human form of Athena in 510 BC. But the first living person to have his portrait on a coin was Tissaphernes (a Persian governor, on a tetradrachm coin minted in 411 BC on the occasion of his payment to the Spartan fleet at Miletus).

Ever since these early portraits appeared artists have attempted to reveal the features of people of history, some obscure, some most prominent. Statues and paintings were created as image-recorders of the past, but not one Greek portrait painting has survived and most early statues are disfigured or have crumbled in time. Coins and medals, because of their greater capacity for survival over longer time, record the personal image more than any other surviving art medium! That’s importance!

Thus the creating of these small bas-relief portraits by engraving – or later by modeling oversize and pantographic reduction – have occupied artists activities for centuries. Realism – realistic portraiture – it is obvious, has been bas-relief artists’ dominant desire throughout history.

Portraits are the most difficult of any bas-relief form to create; in addition to a realistic image the artist must capture the “essence” or personality of the person. An engraver must create this lifelike representation by carving in steel (or the modeler in clay or plaster).

He must decide the position of the head or the bust with all the facial features and how best to present it; then he must prepare the image that reflects that person in a most reliable way.

Side-view profiles are far more popular in coin and medal portraiture because of the beneficial manner in which a profile fits the contours of a circle. Perhaps as few as fifteen percent of all portraits use a full face or a head turned slightly, so popular is the other 85 percent of all coins and medals with portrait in profile. Right facing profiles are about thirty percent more popular than left facing (the symbolism of facing right is looking ahead, progressing forward in western culture, facing left is looking backwards, ideal, say, for a historian).

Daniel Webster

Daniel Webster, part of the Hall of Fame of Great Americans series.

Artists have attempted to employ artificial aids, any method possible to achieve more realistic portraits. Portrait technicians have tried life masks, death masks, drawing frames and the cameograph of the 20th century. All these, however, have proved futile for preparing a more acceptable portrait.

What is far more important for a coin or medal portrait is to filter the features of the person’s image through the mind and creative expression of a talented artist. Not only must the artist make his portrait a close physical resemblance of the person, but he must also give it life. He must vivify his portrait even if his subject is no longer alive!

In contrast to the above mentioned discarded technologies, two innovations did dramatically influenced coin and medal portraiture: First was the development of the die-engraving pantograph (following its invention in 1766 and continued development right up to the 20th century). The second was the development of photography (in the early 1800s) with the first portrait made in 1839.

The die-engraving pantograph allowed medallists to create a bas-relief model – often a portrait – (in soft clay or easy-to-model plaster) in a size larger than what was needed in a die.

Cast this design into hard metal, then reduce it on a pantograph which cuts a die (or a reduction punch) to the size required. What took days of tedious labor engraving in tiny bites, smoothing the surface, and taking constant proof impressions of this hand engraved die to check the state of that die, was replaced by the artist making an easy model, then rendering this in one or more correct size dies, each in a matter of hours.

Coin and medal engraving, once the exclusive work of diesinking hand engravers, passed to sculptors, who could model designs and portraits with far greater ease in an oversized and more realistic nature. Often mints would commission sculptors just to produce more lifelike portraits that mint engravers could employ, in turn, to make dies of an attractive design.

Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein Commemorative Award.

Photography, that second beneficial technology, allowed artists to model from photographic prints rather than require the person to sit for a portrait where the artist sketches the sitter’s features. Ideally an artist would prefer a profile photograph with one or two prints of the head and face from several angles. Sculptor-medallist Jo Davidson preferred motion picture film to learn the likeness of the face and the traits of the person in action. He often commissioned film to be made especially for him to study when he worked on a portrait.

So important were the early photographs that in 1850 the U.S. Mint gave credit to the photographers! The Meade Brothers produced a Daguerreotype which engraver Charles Cushing Wright used to model the portrait on the Daniel Webster Medal (PE-37). Wright signed the medal on the obverse and named the MEADE BROS. DAG on the reverse.

Portraits painted in miniature – and engraved prints – rapidly became superseded by photography. But thus this new visual technique rapidly enhanced coin and medal portraiture.

Medallic Art Company’s contribution to medallic portraiture. It is not a coincidence that the first medals made by Medallic Art’s founder Henri Weil were portrait medals of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Benjamin Franklin, Theodore Roosevelt, James McNeill Whistler and Hendrik Hudson – all made 1906-08.

Medals in Medallic Art’s archives are dominated by portraits, U.S. presidents, founders and leaders of every kind of organization, famous people of past and present. These are the people their sponsors wanted to honor by the highest form of recognition. Perhaps half of all the medals made by the firm bear portraits.

It is the series of medals struck by Medallic Art, however, where medallic portraiture importance is even more evident. Here are the most notable:

  • Hall of Fame of Great Americans – 56 medals in two sizes, all bearing portraits of famous Americans by famous American artists.
  • Presidential Art’s President Series – 42 medals of now 44 presidents.
  • Presidential Art’s Statehood Series – 50 medals each bearing portrait of famous son of that state.
  • Presidential Art’s Signers Series – 56 signers of Declaration of Independence.
  • Great Men of Medicine – 50 medals each of historical portrait.
  • Apollo Space Series – 8 medals each with portraits of three astronauts.
  • New York Numismatic Club Presidents Series – 25 medals in an ongoing series.

We learn from a coin struck during the time of Cleopatra that she was not the raving beauty of an Elizabeth Taylor, or from a contemporary medal we observe the rugged sea-hardened features, the elations and disappointments in the face of Columbus. Portraiture adds personality to a name in a history book. This does, however, place a tremendous burden on the artist to document that personality, to preserve the nature – to record the lifelike characteristics – of that person. A portrait on a coin or medal preserves a permanent image frozen for centuries.

Some Portrait Terms To Know

Here are some terms used to described portraits, followed by a brief definition of some of those terms:

  • TERMS:  head, bust, bearded, full face, profile, full length, three quarter, unknown portrait.
  • POSITION: facing, turned (degree as 1/3, half or 2/3), gardant, regardant.
  • ADORNMENTS (on head): diadem (crown), laureate (wreath), headgear (identify type of hat).
  • HAIR STYLE: coiffure perfect, windblown or unkempt.
  • CLOTHING: clothed, nude, folds, flowing, uniform.
  • ART STYLE:  realistic, formal, representational, classic, action pose, character, cartoon, silhouette.
  • DUAL PORTRAITS: conjoined, accolated, jugate, bijugate,  tete-a-tete, vis-a-vis.
  • HOW BODY ENDS:  truncated, erased, couped.
  • TEXTURE: (usually smooth), textured, style rude (rough style).

Accolated.  Two or more portraits facing the same direction and joined at the neck.

Adorned.  To embellish with detail; to add ornamentation to a design, usually of a costume.

Bearded.  Facial hair on male portraits, it is as important to identify the individual as any other facial characteristic.

Bijugate.  Two overlapping portraits facing the same direction; jugate; a British term the equivalent of accolated or conjoined; if the heads face each other, vis-à-vis.

Bust.  That portrait of a person including the neck and some part of the shoulder or chest; the head down to the shoulder bone.

Clothed.  A human figure appearing on a numismatic or medallic item draped or dressed with any form of covering or clothing.

Conjoined.  Two or more figures or portraits joined together, usually overlapping, to form a single device.

Costume and Clothing.  The human figure is the most pictured object on coins and medals, hence the cloth covering the human form is of importance to the designer, the viewer, the cataloger – everyone who encounters the numismatic piece portraying a person or people.

Couped.  Cut off smoothly; said of a bust or the neck of a portrait at the place of truncation.

Diadem.  Ornamental headband or fillet originally worn by royalty but occasionally found in numismatic designs, sometimes lettered.

Draped, Drapery.  A clothed figure or bust appearing on a numismatic or medallic item; the loose hanging of cloth in folds.

Erased.  Cut off uneven or jagged, as if torn off; said of a portrait or bust at the truncation.

Full Face.  A portrait head in front view, with all or part of both ears showing in contrast to a head in profile, or turned to the right or left.

Full Figure.  A standing portrait; a person shown on a numismatic or medallic item in their entire length.

Gardant.  A side view portrait of a subject looking back over a shoulder to show face to the viewer.

Head.  The portrait of a person, featuring the face with a portion of the neck. If any part of the shoulder is present it is not a head, but a bust

Jugate.  Two or more portraits joined side-by-side and overlapping to form the device appearing on one side of a numismatic item.

Laureate.  A crowned head, or one with a wreath of laurel – laurel being symbolic of victory or award of honor.

Profile.  (1) The side view of a portrait; a face or bust facing 90° from the viewer.

Regardant.  A portrait looking back over the subject’s shoulder.

Self-Portrait.  The artist creates his own image for a medallic item, or, in rare instances, includes his image among human figures depicted on a medallic item.

Tête-à-tête.  Two portraits facing each other as if engaged in conversation. Early numismatists, particular English, called these two portraits confronted, a heraldic term.

Truncation.  The edge of relief where the design is literally cut off; said of a portrait or bust where the body design ends. The truncation is often the location of a signature or monogram.

Undraped.  Without clothing, nude, said of a human figure or bust appearing on a numismatic or medallic item.

Vis-a-vis.  Two portraits facing each other; tete-a-tete. Opposite of accolated or conjoined.

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