The Art of Devastation: Medals and Posters of the Great War premiered as an online exhibition on July 31, 2017. Based on the physical exhibition by the same name, which ran from January 27–April 9 at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center at Vassar College, the online edition includes each of the 130 medals and posters with text and high-quality, “zoomable” color images. The online exhibition also includes video, maps, and links to the ANS’s collections database. Guests can browse the exhibit on their computers, tablets, and smart phones. The exhibition and its catalogue were co-edited by Peter van Alfen, the Margaret Thompson Curator of Greek Coins and head of Curatorial at the ANS, and Patricia Phagan, the Philip and Lynn Straus Curator of Prints and Drawings at the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center. The online exhibit was created by Andrew Reinhard, ANS Director of Publications.
This marks the first in a new series of free online exhibits created and curated by the ANS using tools provided by the Google Cultural Institute. The ANS collections include more numismatic specimens and artifacts than could ever be shown in its public exhibition space, or through loans to other museums. By curating permanent, online exhibits, the ANS can share its collections in organized, thematic ways for anyone to enjoy. Future online exhibits for 2017 include Funny Money: The Fight of the U.S. Secret Service against Counterfeit Money, curated by Ute Wartenberg, and an exhibition on Umayyad coinage curated by Vivek Gupta.
The printed exhibition catalogue for The Art of Devastation is available for purchase through the ANS’s store.
On October 5, 1858, the New York Crystal Palace burned to the ground in just forty minutes after a fire broke out in the northeast corner of the building just after five o’clock in the evening. The American Institute, a civic organization dedicated to “encouraging and promoting domestic industry,” was holding its annual fair, and about two thousand visitors were in the building at the time. The New York Herald (October 6, 1858) reported that despite scenes of “indescribable confusion,” remarkably no one was killed in the fast-moving blaze.
Although the enormous structure was mostly made of iron and glass, the pitch pine that was used as flooring and in much of the framework “afforded a most inflammable pabulum for the conflagration to feed upon.” In a particularly evocative passage the Herald noted that at one point “the whole palace was like a burning coal, and vomiting up fire at a rate that would have done credit to Vesuvius.” The vivid scene was captured in a hand-colored lithograph by Currier and Ives in which you can make out a company of red-shirted New York City firemen arriving in the foreground to vainly battle the roaring blaze.
The New York version of the Crystal Palace was constructed to host an “Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations” in 1853, which was an American effort to replicate The Great Exhibition of 1851 held in London’s Hyde Park. The building was designed by architects Georg Carstensen and Charles Gildemeister in the shape of a Greek cross with arms measuring 365 feet in length and capped with a 100-foot diameter dome at its center. For the architecturally inclined a full description of the building with plates can be found here. The building was located on a site between Fifth and Sixth Avenues on 42nd Street, in what is today Bryant Park. It was completed in June 1853, at which time this large medal was struck to commemorate the occasion.
The obverse shows the Crystal Palace in all its glory while the reverse depicts a globe surrounded by allegorical figures bearing the varied attributes of industry. The beatified figure of Europe reigns supreme at the top while a man in native dress looks up at her from below. As the title and imagery implies, the exhibition was intended to highlight the industrial and artistic achievements of the United States, and the supposed march of civilization. The exhibition proved popular and it provided a model of sorts for the string of World’s Fairs that were subsequently staged around the country. Between July and November, over a million people visited the Crystal Palace to take in the exhibits and enjoy the varied entertainments that were on offer. One of the more unusual attractions on the grounds was the Latting Observatory, a 315-foot tower built adjacent to the exhibition building.
As depicted in this medal struck by G. H. Lovett, the Observatory was an iron-braced wooden structure with stores at its base and three landings from which visitors were treated to a panoramic view of the growing city. The tower did not live to see the fiery demise of its neighbor, as this structure was itself consumed by flames a few years prior to the spectacular Crystal Palace fire. It was not until the New York World Building was completed in 1890 that another structure in the city surpassed three hundred feet in height.
Despite the ostensible success of the initial exhibition, the Crystal Palace was something of an ongoing problem for the city and its owners as the building was simply too big to be of much practical use beyond the occasional event. For all of the remarkable happenings and superlatives that graced the short-lived structure, the Herald‘s description makes it clear that its dramatic and destructive final act on October 5, 1858 might have left the biggest impression.
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.
With Mother’s Day approaching this weekend, I thought it might be a good time for a post about the many mothers who appear in the collection of the American Numismatic Society. The most common way mothers figure in our collections is via medallic art, where prominent artists ranging from Oscar Roty (1846-1911) to Victor David Brenner (1871-1924) engraved medals depicting maternal ideals. Roty’s particularly elegant medal was executed as a memorial of the baptism of his son in 1893.
Brenner’s medal follows Roty rather closely and indeed much of the medallic art concerning motherhood in the Beaux-Arts era traded in these kind of sentimental images.
One exceptional item to note in this context is a wonderful medallion by Adam Pietz (1873-1961) that depicts his own mother in a realistic rather than an idealized fashion. (I should also note that the ANS has a small archive of his drawings, photographs, and papers.)
In 1914, a proclamation by Woodrow Wilson officially set aside the “second Sunday of May as a public expression of our love and reverence for the mothers of our country.” He did so as a result of long-running campaign by activist Anna Jarvis to honor the memory of her own mother and the ideal of motherhood more generally. The holiday subsequently spread around the world, in some places combining with existing traditions.
Mother’s Day took on a special significance in the context of World War I when so many mothers had sons fighting and dying overseas. See the Art of Devastation project for the many ways that mothers featured in the often grim medallic art and propaganda that accompanied the war.
On the other hand, mothers have appeared only very sparingly in circulating currency. While there is a lot of Byzantine and medieval coinage that features religious iconography of the Virgin Mary with child, more specific and secular representations of motherhood have been few and far between. A notable exception to this rule was the Obsolete Bank Note Era (1782-1866) in the United States, when images of mothers and childhood proliferated. This was not coincidentally a time when modern ideas about childhood and the nurturing role of the mother in particular were coming to the fore.
The first mother to appear on United States coinage was Eleanor Dare, who has been celebrated for giving birth to the first child born in the ‘New World’ to English parents. She appears on the reverse of the commemorative “Colonization of Roanoke” half dollar minted in 1936-37.
William Marks Simpson engraved the design, which features her holding the newborn Virginia Dare, flanked by the ships that brought the doomed colonists across the Atlantic.
The most notable mother on modern American currency is of course Sacagawea, who features on the little-used and oft-derided $1 coin. Designed by artist Glenda Goodacre (1939-), the obverse of the coin shows the Shoshone guide in three-quarter view with her son Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau on her back. It’s a useful reminder of the way that mothers carry us through life. Happy Mother’s Day!
For more on motherhood and numismatics, see Anouska Hamlin’s fine article on the subject from the Winter 2010 edition of the ANS Magazine.