Before Thanksgiving I had the great pleasure of participating in “Holding History in the Palm of One’s Hand: Contemporary Perspectives on Medals and Coins from Antiquity to the Recent Past,” an event at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art in Brunswick, Maine, celebrating the exhibit “A Handheld History: Five Centuries of Medals from the Molinari Collection at Bowdoin College.” Three speakers, myself, Dr. Stephen K. Scher, and Prof. Susan Wegner, presented different aspects of medallic art and its history from its inception in the Italian Renaissance to the twenty-first century. We were then joined on stage by the curators of the exhibit, Amber Orosco, Stephen Pastoriza, and Benjamin Wu, for a panel discussion. Significantly, all three of the curators are currently undergraduate students at Bowdoin, which makes their achievement in curating this exhibit all the more remarkable.
In 1966, the Bowdoin College Museum of Art received from Amanda Marchesa Molinari a gift of a collection of approximately 1,500 art medals and 200 related books—including numerous rare volumes from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries— that she and her late husband, Cesare Molinari d’Incisa, had assembled over the course of several decades. The collection is rather astonishing for the large number of important medals of the fifteenth through seventeenth centuries from Italy and Northern Europe especially, some of which, in fact, are lacking in the ANS’s collection, such as the John VIII Palaeologos medal by Pisanello. Curators at Bowdoin in the 1960s were certainly aware of the importance of this collection; a partial catalogue of the collection by Andrea Norris and Ingrid Weber was soon published and an exhibit of some of the highlights was put on display. In the decades since, however, this collection had not received the attention it rightly deserves.
In the summer of 2017, Museum Co-Director Dr. Anne Collins Goodyear and the student curators paid me a visit at the ANS and also spoke with Stephen Scher at The Frick Collection. Dr. Scher introduced them to highlights from the collection he had recently donated to the museum, then on view in the exhibition “The Pursuit of Immortality: Masterpieces from the Scher Collection of Portrait Medals.” Their purpose was to discuss the history of the medal, the Molinari collection, and their intent to put on a new exhibit of this outstanding collection. The results of their efforts, “A Handheld History,” are truly impressive. In eight cases, the exhibit not only displays some of the most important pieces from the Molinari collection, but also focuses on various aspects of medal production, metallurgical analysis in the study of medals, and the evolution of medallic art over the centuries. Two of the cases are particularly noteworthy. One includes a 1723 edition of the folio volume accompanying the Histoire Métallique documenting the reign of Louis XIV of France along with a selection of the medals illustrated in the volume; another includes a volume of Gerard van Loon’s 1732 folio Beschryving der Nederlandsche historipenningen along with medals depicting the ill-fated de Witt brothers, Johan and Cornelis. Rarely indeed are these two important early volumes exhibited side-by-side along with some of the actual medals illustrated on their pages.
The exhibit will be on display at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art through January 20, 2019. A video of the panel discussion will be made available on the Museum’s website.
During the summer of 1758, British and colonial forces captured the fortress of Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, which marked a turning point in the Seven Years’ War. Louisbourg was a strategically important stronghold that provided a safe harbor for the French navy and protected access to the St. Lawrence River, which was the outlet for the Great Lakes into the Atlantic Ocean and the critical waterway connecting the colonies of New France to the outside world.
The war originated in an ongoing and complex struggle over control of the Ohio River Valley between varied local agents (colonists, soldiers, missionaries, traders, etc.) representing Britain and France and the assorted Indian tribes that either inhabited the region or exerted power there. The flashpoint occurred in the course of competing efforts to establish a fort at the so-called “Forks” where the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers met. In the spring of 1754, French forces arrived at the Forks, knocked down a small British fort that had been established there, and built Fort Duquesne. In retaliation, a company of colonial militia under the command of the young Lieutenant Colonel George Washington and some Indian allies ambushed a French patrol in late May. This seemingly minor but bloody skirmish kicked off a conflict that lasted almost a decade and spanned the globe.
While the ins and outs of the war are invariably interesting, the most important thing to understand in the context of the North American theater was that things did not go particularly well for Britain and its colonial proxies during the early years of the conflict. This string of setbacks and defeats culminated in the summer of 1757 with the loss of Fort William Henry at the southern edge of Lake George and a failed expedition to capture Louisbourg. These failures led to wholesale changes in the British military leadership and saw the energetic William Pitt emerge to direct the overall war effort. Because Louisbourg played such a key role in protecting the lines of supply that sustained French forces, it became the primary target of Pitt’s ambitious strategy for the 1758 campaign in North America.
Major General Jeffrey Amherst and Admiral Edward Boscawen were placed in charge of the land and naval forces, which ultimately comprised some 14,000 soldiers and 200 ships, including twenty-three ships of the line. The prior year’s expedition failed in part because the French navy was able to concentrate enough warships at Louisbourg to make a direct assault on the fortress difficult, but by 1758 it no longer had that capability. The tightening of the blockade of French ports by the Royal Navy made resupply challenging, and the main relief fleet was destroyed at the Battle of Cartagena in February. A sally from the main French Navy port at Brest was likewise turned back in April, leaving the defenders at Louisbourg with just five ships of the line and no hope of resupply for the summer.
Despite a brief but determined resistance from entrenched defenders at Gabarus Bay, British troops were landed on June 8 and the formal siège une forme commenced. Vauban’s famed treatise De l’attaque et de la défense des places (“On the Attack and Defense of Fortified Places”) laid out a strategy for overcoming the defenses at Louisbourg that Amherst followed to the letter.
The illustration above shows the impressive landward defenses and bastions of the fortress, as well as the network of trenches dug by its attackers. The comparatively vulnerable fortifications facing the harbor were buttressed by the French warships, which rode at anchor just offshore and prevented Admiral Boscawen’s fleet from forcing an entrance into the harbor. Still, with any kind of relief made impossible by the Royal Navy, it was only a matter of time before the fortress fell. The British soldiers set to work digging, slowly hauled their cannon forward, and soon began shelling the French into submission. By July 6, the attackers were within 600 yards of the walls and red hot cannon shots were raining on the city. Six-weeks of constant shelling, mounting casualties, and frequent fires taxed Louisbourg’s defenders to the breaking point. Boscawen’s marines delivered the coup de grâce on July 25, sneaking into the harbor under the cover of fog and burning or capturing the remaining French warships.
With the city now surrounded and the shelling set to intensify, the chevalier de Drucour surrendered Louisbourg the next day. Although generous terms might have been expected given the precepts of contemporary warfare and the vigorous defense mounted, Amherst was unforgiving. Honors were denied to the garrison, and all who bore arms were made prisoners of war and transported to England. The entire civilian population of Cape Breton was deported back to France and many of the Indians allied with the French, primarily Micmacs and Abenakis, were slaughtered by British soldiers and American rangers in revenge for the massacre that followed the surrender of Fort William Henry in 1757.
The Siege of Louisbourg was a brutal and decisive victory that paved the way for the successful invasion of Canada and the larger Annus Mirabalis of 1759 that left France and its allies reeling. Its capture and the humiliating terms of the defeat were quickly commemorated in medallic form. At least in terms of the numismatic legacy of the siege, it was Boscawen, not Amherst, who figures much more prominently, despite the latter’s ostensibly more significant role in the fall of the fortress. In C. Wyllys Betts’ catalog of American colonial medals, Boscawen is listed as gracing eight of the twelve Louisbourg medals. The medal above depicts and celebrates the moment of French capitulation, and its obverse features a bust wreathed with the legend: TO BRAVE ADM. BOSCAWEN
A number of medals feature the same rather crudely executed bust of Boscawen on the obverse. The most interesting of the varied reverses depicts the scene in Louisbourg harbor on July 26, 1758. By far the most notable and elaborate medal in the series was one Boscawen commissioned from the distinguished medallist Thomas Pingo (1692-1776).
The medal was struck in gold, silver, and copper. The ANS holds examples of each, but the gold specimen (ex-Norweb) is the prize as it is supposed to have been Boscawen’s own, with the few other gold medals having been awarded to trusted officers. It is a masterpiece of medallic propaganda that depicts a prostrate female figure in the foreground seemingly being crushed by a globe and forlornly pointing at a falling fleur-de-lis. Standing triumphantly above her are a soldier and a sailor with the legend PARITER IN BELLA (“equally brave in war”) stretching between them. Above, Fame holds a laurel wreath in one hand and blows on a trumpet, announcing the British victory to the world.
The reverse shows the events of July 25, when Boscawen’s sailors burned the Prudent and stole the Bienfaisant in a daring raid. This well-engraved scene shows the ships of the Royal Navy preparing to enter the harbor in the background while a British battery shells the fortified town in the foreground. One of the remarkable details is the dotted line of a cannon shot that tracks across the face of the medal from the lower left corner to the ball just bellow the V in the date (click to enlarge). As the plethora of Louisbourg medals held by the ANS suggests, it marked a significant turning point in the Seven Years’ War.
British engineers systemically destroyed Louisbourg’s fortifications after the battle, but a garrison was maintained at the site until 1768. The present-day town of Louisbourg is located on the north side of the harbor, some distance away from the original fortress to its southwest. The historical town and fortress was the subject of a fascinating government-sponsored research and reconstruction project in the 1960s and 1970s. The site today stands as a wonderful example of effective cultural and heritage work, and it is well worth a visit if you are in the area.
Those wishing to learn more about the history of Louisbourg and the larger conflict in which it played such a pivotal role are in luck! Christopher Moore’s masterful Louisbourg Portraits(1982) follows the varied experiences of an accused thief, a young bride, and a Swiss mercenary, among others, to give readers a vivid impression of what life was like in the eighteenth-century French outpost. Fred Anderson’s Crucible of War (2000) focuses on the participation and perspective of British North American colonists in the conflict and highlights how the legacy of the war led to the Revolution. It is quite simply one of the best history books published in recent years.
The American Numismatic Society is proud to now offer a new and much anticipated publication for sale, Medallic Art of the American Numismatic Society, 1865-2014, by Scott H. Miller. This is the second volume in our Studies in MedallicArtseries, and it looks at the history of medals issued by and for the ANS. The hardcover book features full-color photography and comprehensive histories of 60 medals, and includes discussions of additional medals that have been both rightly or wrongly attributed to the ANS.
The entries are supplemented with artist sketches, archival photos, and contemporary sources that bring the stories behind these medals to life. Four appendixes note the recipients of many of the medals, and provide a list of dies, hubs, galvanos, and casts of the medals in the ANS’s own collection.
Commenting on the new book, Andrew Reinhard, Director of Publications, said “The ANS has been a leader in the publication of art medals in the U.S. for the past 150 years. The issuance of medals has been at the forefront of out mission since its inception, and they are as important as coinage in terms of history and beauty. Working with Scott Miller to produce the book was a rewarding experience, and we are all very happy that it is now available to the public.”
Medallic Art of the American Numismatic Society, 1865-2014, is available for purchase on the ANS website or by calling Catherine DiTuri at 212-571-4470, ext. 117. List price is $100; ANS member may purchase it for $70.
This week in 1925, Charles Lindbergh completed the first nonstop solo flight across the Atlantic in his custom-built plane the Spirit of St. Louis. He took off from Roosevelt Field on Long Island and landed at the Le Bourget airfield near Paris 33.5 hours later, having flown over 3600 miles. A crowd of 150,000 spectators greeted his arrival, and the feat brought Lindbergh fame and fortune, if not lasting happiness. In recognition of his bold endeavor, a joint resolution of Congress (45 Stat. 490) providing $1500 for a commemorative medal was passed and signed by President Calvin Coolidge on May 12, 1928.
The commission was awarded to sculptor Laura Gardin Fraser (1889-1966), who was a particularly good and prolific medallic artist. The photograph to the right shows her at work in the studio she shared with her husband, sculptor James Earle Fraser (1876-1953). [Note that she is working on this medal for the monthly magazine Woman’s Home Companion.] After some back and forth with Secretary of the Treasury Andrew W. Mellon over the design, it was finally approved in April 1930. This was not the last battle between the two as a few years later Mellon infamously overlooked her design for the US quarter in favor of John Flanagan’s oft-derided bust of Washington that still graces the coin today. The United States Mint cast one gold medal and many more bronze duplicates, which were sold to the public for $1 plus 10 cents postage. The singular gold medal was awarded to Lindbergh by President Hebert Hoover in a simple ceremony held at the White House on August 15, 1930.
Lindbergh was typically modest, with the New York Times going so far as to note his “embarrassment” at the pomp of the occasion. The medal itself is a fine example of Laura Gardin Fraser’s skill, as you can see in this bronze copy, which is one of six held by the ANS.
The reverse appears to have been inspired by one of Lindbergh’s nicknames, “The Lone Eagle.” The Congressional Gold Medal is but one of dozens of numismatic tributes to Charles Lindbergh’s achievement, and we will take a look at another one around this time next year.
The Pulitzer Prize(s) have been awarded annually since 1917 for excellence in journalism, arts, and letters. They are the legacy of the Hungarian-born American newspaper publisher Joseph Pulizter (1847-1911), and the 2015 winners were announced yesterday for what are now twenty-one separate categories. Although the Pulitzer medal has come to symbolize the program, the only winner that actually receives a medal is the organization that receives the award for “disinterested and meritorious” Public Service, which this year went to Charleston’s The Post and Couriernewspaper. The other awardees receive a certificate and ten-thousand dollars, which must be some consolation.
The medal was designed by the noted American sculptors Daniel Chester French (1850-1931) and Augustus Lukeman (1872-1935), who were both better-known for their monumental work. As the awards were being organized in line with Pulitzer’s will, Columbia University President Nicholas Murray Butler commissioned French to make a medal with an image of the most celebrated newsman in American history, Benjamin Franklin.
The model for the obverse is presumed to be a marble bust by the French sculptor Jean Antoine Houdon at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where Daniel Chester French was a trustee. The reverse was originally intended to simply be text, but as they were modeling it French and Lukeman thought that too plain and added an image of a man working an early printing press. Although this touch was welcomed, the design went through several revisions before an image of a bare-chested printer straining at the press was chosen. The artists’ respective monograms were engraved on the base of the right leg of the press. The slow design process meant that the first medals were not struck by the Medallic Art Co. of New York until 1918. The New York Times, which had won the initial Public Service award in 1917, thus received their medal late. Despite its lustrous appearance, the medal was not solid gold but silver plated with gold.
Done in the reigning Beaux-Arts style, it is a very well-executed design and fitting for a journalism award. The American Numismatic Society’s medal is obviously an un-awarded example. There are blank spaces where the name of the winning organization would be inscribed in the exergue on the obverse and for the date above the printing bed on the reverse. The legend HONORIS CAUSA simply means “for the sake of the honor,” while the descriptive text on the back is the language from the citation. The Joseph Pulitzer medal is a truly wonderful example of American medallic art, and one undoubtedly appropriate for what has become the most prestigious honor in journalism.
The Keying was a three-masted Chinese trading junk that sailed from Hong Kong in December 1847 with a mixed crew of Chinese and British sailors. The vessel had been purchased surreptitiously by a conglomerate of enterprising English businessmen. It was placed under the command of Captain Alfred Kellett with the intention of carrying curiosities and merchandise to England and thereafter serving as a kind of floating museum. The avaricious Kellett neglected to tell the Chinese crew members that they were embarking on such an extended journey, and by the time the Keying rounded the Cape of Good Hope, they were more or less mutinous. After some bad weather and with supplies running short, the vessel was forced to make an unscheduled stopover in New York City. When the Keying sailed into the harbor on July 9, 1847, it created a sensation. Since at least the late eighteenth-century, Americans had exhibited a fascination with China that only increased as trade relations expanded in the nineteenth century. Tea was of course the most coveted commodity, but Chinese porcelain, silk, and other luxury goods were also much sought after. The Keying brought the “romance of China” to New York City, and the public lined up to pay fifty cents to tour the vessel and peruse its displays.
This watercolor by Samuel Waugh shows the Keying anchored just offshore from Castle Garden, where it remained for several months in 1847. Kellett was coining money, but the Chinese crew used the opportunity to take him to court for his duplicity and general meanness. Although they received a favorable ruling and many of the crew elected to head back to China, Kellett skipped town to escape his obligations, making first for Boston and then crossing the Atlantic the following spring.
In late March 1848, the Keying arrived in London to great fanfare, and several different medals were struck to commemorate its appearance and to sell to the public as souvenirs. If anything, the Chinese junk created an even bigger sensation in England, where it was visited by the Queen, Charles Dickens, and other luminaries. The Keying remained a popular attraction for several years, but later fell into disrepair and it was eventually dismantled. For a description of the vessel, the voyage, and the objects it contained, click on the image at left to page through the promotional pamphlet that Kettell published in London. The slideshow below reproduces some of the plates from the same:
Of course, the reason we are noting it here is that its story lives on in medallic form. And to that end, the American Numismatic Society holds five Keying medals or medallions. Laurence Brown’s British Historical Medals (1987) lists eleven different types, but a casual look through auction catalogs at the ANS suggests there are even a few more than that about. Broadly speaking, there is not much variation in their design, with the obverses generally featuring an image of the Keying at sea, the only exception being a medal that has a bust of “MANDERIN [sic] HESING.” The reverses simply consist of as much descriptive text as size allowed. Four of the medals held by the ANS and the balance of the series were produced in Birmingham. They were engraved by either Thomas Halliday or his former apprentice Joseph Moore, who had formed his own firm as Allen & Moore. The large size white metal type struck by Halliday is probably the most technically accomplished of the series.
Its reverse reads: THIS REMARKABLE VESSEL IS A JUNK OF THE LARGEST CLASS, AND IS THE FIRST SHIP CONSTRUCTED BY THE CHINESE WHICH HAS REACHED EUROPE, OR EVEN ROUNDED THE CAPE OF GOOD HOPE. THIS JUNK WAS PURCHASED AUGUST, 1846, AT CANTON BY A FEW ENTERPRISING ENGLISHMEN. SHE SAILED FROM HONG KONG 6TH DECEMBER, 1846, ROUNDED THE CAPE 31ST MARCH, 1847, ARRIVED IN ENGLAND 27TH MARCH, 1848.
The ANS has another of this same type in bronze. The other large-sized medal in the collection is one by Allen & Moore with a slightly different view of the Keying and a more precise descriptive legend about the vessel itself on the reverse. The smaller (27mm) Allen & Moore medal is a reduced version of the former with an abbreviated legend on the reverse. The smallest of our Keying medals (24mm) is a bronze type of unknown origin (BHM 2243):
Postscript: One of the many fascinating objects on display at the NYHS is this beautiful decorative fan on loan from the Atwater Kent Collection. It commemorates the 1784-1785 voyage by the Empress of China from Philadelphia to Canton that inaugurated the Old China Trade.
Vincent Willem van Gogh was born on this date in 1853 near Breda in the southern part of the Netherlands. It was not until his late twenties that he began to paint in earnest. Before taking his own life at the age of thirty-seven, Van Gogh produced a huge volume of drawings, watercolors, and oil paintings. Many of the latter have of course come to be regarded as iconic works of modern art, even though his work was largely overlooked during his lifetime. The American Numismatic Society holds a fine medal commemorating the centenary of his birth by the Dutch artist J. B. Gutterswijk (1924-1987).
The portrait of Van Gogh on the obverse I think captures something of his troubled brilliance, and seems to be based on the famed self-portrait now at the Art Institute of Chicago. The reverse features a field of wheat, alluding to the many compostions of his in which they featured, along with two quotations.
The prominent legend, LONG ARS VITA BREVIS, is a Latin version of the first lines of Hippocrates Aphorisms, which is usually translated as “Art is long, life is short.” The smaller inscription below the field reads | mon travail à moi, j’y risque ma vie | “my very own work, I’m risking my life for it.” This is a quote from a letter that Vincent wrote to his brother Theo in late July 1890 just days before his untimely death. For a fascinating look at Van Gogh’s life and art, check out the wealth of wonderful materials made available via the website of the Van Gogh Museum here.