xml/lby.00048.xml Icons of Liberty: Numismatic Art in America: Aesthetics of the United States Coinage

Cornelius Vermeule, Numismatic Art in America: Aesthetics of the United States Coinagefrom Chapter I, "Background of the Federal Coinage" and Chapter III, "America's Classical Coinage" (1971)

Transcribed from pages 9-10, 44-45 and 47-49 of Cornelius Vermeule's Numismatic Art in America: Aesthetics of the United States Coinage, Harvard University Press, 1971.


"Liberty or Columbia (from the first they are amply draped females carrying the cap on a pole or the branch of peace) grows quite naturally out of the seated Britannia or Hibernia of colonial coins. In 1785 the "Immune Columbia" cent, identified with the border area of Vermont and New York, carried a matron in windblown drapery, a Liberty cap on a pole, and a pair of scales in her hands. The following year saw cents of Vermont inscribed INDEPENDENCE AND LIBERTY, a bust imitating that of George III on the obverse and, opposing, the image of the seated Britannia holding out the olive branch in her right hand, spear diagonally in her left, and a small, round shield at her left side. Iconography becomes confused, for the castles of Spain appear as a device on one of the shields, while most of the others display the crosses of Saint George and Saint Andrew superimposed in true British fashion. Coins identified with New York (including issues evidently struck in England as a speculative venture), with Connecticut, and with New Jersey used the same motifs, the goddess standing or seated. They are dated in the years 1785 to 1788. A Pine Tree pattern cent, seemingly made in Massachusetts in 1776, shows Liberty seated on a globe, cap and staff in her grasp. A half-penny of the same year has a similar Liberty, seated in the opposite direction, and the inscription GODDESS LIBERTY. Thus, it would appear Liberty had been an integral part of American numismatic art from the earliest struggles of the thirteen independent colonies and the first union of sovereign states.

The LIBERTAS AMERICANA medals created by the French artist Augustin Dupré (1748-1833) to commemorate the victories of Saratoga and Yorktown were also a font of subjective and iconographic inspiration, notably in the regular coinage of 1793. The obverse of Dupré's LIBERTAS AMERICANA medal, streaming hair on a Hellenistic bust of Artemis or a maenad, Greek helmet or pileus on a small pole, exerted its influence on Philadelphia's first heads of Liberty once the national coinage was commenced, but the reverse of the same medal was more a tribute to France as protector than the infant nation as a cultural entity. Clearly, Dupré had no notion of what was going on across the Atlantic from 1777 to 1781, and so, with promptings from Benjamin Franklin, he restored to the tried and true old formula a pure classical allegory to express political action. "Not without the gods is the infant corageous" reads the Latin legend. Infant Hercules strangles the snakes in his crib while his perennial protectress Minerva uses her French regal shield to ward off a leopard's leap, a beast no doubt symbolic of those on the coat-of-arms of England. The forms of the pyramidal composition are those of the Italian Baroque, dramatic art in traditions of the seventeenth century. Save for the startling, vivid iconography of the obverse, there was nothing in this medal to set it off from a host of other commemorative pieces produced in Europe in the eighteenth century to celebrate numerous, varied events, and the reverse design of the piece exerted no further influence on American Numismatic art" (9-10).

"In the same period that he produced the seated Liberty and the flying eagle, [Christian] Gobrecht executed new designs (1838) for the ten-dollar denomination in gold, a coin known as the Eagle. The bust of Liberty with an inscribed coronet in her hair that graced the obverse was to remain on the gold coinage until 1908. The reverse differed little from the design in use since 1807 on the five-dollar gold piece save that the wings of the eagle spread from one edge of the coin to the other. On the five-dollar gold piece, or half-Eagle, and even on the last series of large cents, this sober yet young and sympathetic head of Liberty was to vary only in details of tresses on the neck or strands of pearls in the bun on the back of the head. Perhaps the key to charm in this arrangement is that only the thirteen stars and the date occupy the field, making an even simpler, less-active design than the seated Liberty obverse of the comparable denominations in silver.

The motivation for this Roman head of Liberty stems from the vast, varied Roman Neoclassicism of the Napoleonic era. Typical of the sources is a small painting, a free study for a larger composition, by David's contemporary Pierre Narcisse Guérin, Pythagoras or The Earth is Round, painted about 1800. The mathematician harangues a royal couple, evidently the king and queen of Syracuse, amid scribes and students and other hangers-on. It is the diademed or coroneted, white-robed, seated female that should attract our attention for she is related to the heads of Liberty on our nineteenth-century gold and copper coinage. The queen is based on some Greco-Roman statue such as the so-called Agrippina (A.D. 20)—actually Saint Helena the mother of Constantine the Great (A.D. 325)—in the Museo Capitolino in Rome. This statue in turn can be traced back to work in Athens about 420 B.C. in the generation after Pheidias and the Parthenon. Engravings of this ancient sculpture and its ancient replicas in Naples and Florence reached America in the late Neoclassic era, and the new United States received not only reproductions of paintings such as Guérin's Pythagoras but plaster casts of ancient heads comparable to that used in the figure of the queen contemplating the philosopher" (44-45).

Despite the relationship with Greek and Roman forms, the seated Liberty on the obverse of the silver dollar and its divisions is a thoroughly American creation of the age when artists from the young republic were traveling to Italy in the generation following the Napoleonic Wars. The long nose, the large eye (like that of a baby chicken), the hair combed not back but down across the temples in a loop like that worn by the young Queen Victoria, and the rubbery physique are characteristics of Neoclassic heroines in American painting of these decades. Jane McCrea massacred by the Indians in upstate New York during the Revolutionary War or merchants' daughters sitting for their portraits are given the same set of features, both the details and the general proto-Victorian aura of plump, wide-eyed youthfulness. Clutching her ridiculous little hat on a pole and the small shield nestling in the drapery at her side, Liberty looks anxiously over her shoulder as if the horde of Indians were sprinting through the starry firmament toward her. The thirteen six-pointed stars around Liberty and the whole plan of the reverse predate the adoption of the statuesque seated goddess in 1839, going back through the progressive forms of the obverse (stars) and reverse that appeared on the quarter and half-dollar in 1831, 1836, and 1838.

Sully's design for the seated Liberty, as interpreted by Gobrecht in the coinage of 1836, was improved upon by Gobrecht himself in 1839, when drapery was added from the left elbow to the thigh on the half-dollar. In 1840 Dr. Robert Maskell Patterson, Director of the Mint, engaged Robert Ball Hughes, the Anglo-American sculptor, medalist, and maker of portrait miniatures in relief, to improve the proportions and model the drapery in more naturalistic fashion. These minor changes, keeping close to Sully's design as rendered by Gobrecht, at first affected the silver dollar, the quarter, the dime, and the half-dime. The half-dollar alone remained closest to the original scheme of details until 1892.

Robert Ball Hughes enlarged Liberty's head and her cap on the pole. He fattened the right arm reaching down to the shield. This object was brought out in slightly higher relief with the word LIBERTY in heavier lettering on a straighter band. The twisted, dishmop effect of the long hair, especially the tresses down the back of the neck, was smoothed out, and a curl was added to bring the disjointed right shoulder closer to the head and neck. A larger, curved series of folds of drapery was introduced from the left elbow to the knee; structurally impossible in classical terms as part of the main garment, this can only be thought of as a cloak or himation over the left arm. Finally, the folds of the main garment or chiton were smoothed out and regrouped in stricter adherence to a Greek model of the time of the Parthenon and the followers of Pheidias. Greater clarity emerged in the proportions of the body beneath. These modifications also elminated the distressing similarity to a shower curtain in the crinkly folds of vertical drapery derived from the original interpretation of Sully's sketch.

Quaint and dated though the entire ensemble may seem in the light of later coin design, the seated Liberty symbolizes American numismatic art during the generations of westward expansion, the Civil War, the centennial of the young republic, and commericial expansion that was to propel the United States into the role of a worldwide power. Other versions of Liberty in use at this time, the diademed Greco-Roman bust or even the young lady with Indian headdress, have always resembled designs in European or South American coinage. Conceived in the classical tradition, nurtured by a triad of gifted artists, the seated Liberty presided over the coinage of the United States with an individuality matching that of the pioneers, soldiers, merchants, writers, and craftsmen who were making the republic great" (47-49).

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