The Pulitzer Medal

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 Courier newspaper. 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.

Metropolitan Museum of Art
Metropolitan Museum of Art

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. DCF-AL-monogramsThe 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.

ANS, 1940.100.2142
ANS, 1940.100.2142

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.

For more on this golden era of medal-making in the United States, see Barbara Baxter’s ANS catalogue The Beaux-Arts Medal in America (1989).

Matthew Wittmann

Postscript: I would remiss not to acknowledge Elizabeth Fenn, who teaches at my alma mater and won the 2015 award for History. Her book Encounters at the Heart of the World: A History of the Mandan People is a fascinating study of the American Indians who inhabited the plains along the Upper Missouri River. It is a great read that deserves a hearty congratulations!