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.
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).
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.
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.