Monday, July 27, 2009

Coin Monday: A Portrait of American Liberty

July 27, 2009
Posted by John Dale

From the early Renaissance to the present day, the commemorative medal has been an important part of the Western artistic tradition; of the thousands of medals struck in Europe from the early 1400s through the end of World War I, the best are equal parts art and artifact – beautiful slivers of history that tell their stories through heraldic allegory.

Most such medals are little-remembered today, their subjects all-but-forgotten except to the specialist, but a handful have gained and kept greater fame. One such medal is the Libertas Americana, which is represented in bronzed copper in Heritage’s upcoming August 2009 Los Angeles US Coin Auction.

The Libertas Americana is widely considered an American medal and collected as such – and the concepts for the design came from famous founding father Benjamin Franklin – but the actual creation of the medal fell to Augustin Dupré, among the most famous French medallists of his day, and a tasteful choice on Franklin’s part, since the reverse is an allegory of France’s support for the American colonies as they fought for independence from Great Britain. The standard reading is that the figure of Minerva is France, complete with fleurs-de-lis on her shield; the American colonies are the infant Hercules, killing the snakes; and the lion is Great Britain, depicted with tail held between the legs, a show of cowardice.

It is not the reverse for which the Libertas Americana is remembered, however; rather, the beautiful obverse is what has been most enduring. Dupré’s figure of Liberty, a young woman with free, wind-blown hair and a cap-on-pole over her far shoulder, had a readily discernible influence on the earliest coins struck at the Philadelphia Mint, the copper cents and half cents. Among the best treatments of this artistic “borrowing” is the relevant set of passages in Numismatic Art in America, a brilliant examination of American coinage aesthetics by classicist Dr. Cornelius Vermeule.

Dr. Vermeule’s erudite treatment of the Libertas Americana is well worth reading, but a simpler demonstration might be just as effective. In the Platinum Night catalog for the Los Angeles Auction, the Libertas Americana medal is lot 1013. A turn of the page (or a click of the “Next Lot” link on the Web page) and the next lot is a 1793 half cent. Looking from one to the other, the debt is obvious. While the half cent’s New World workmanship was not so polished as its French inspiration, the two have a shared belief in the importance of Liberty, a belief that lives on and not only in metal.

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-John Dale Beety

1 comment:

  1. Good Day
    Nice blog
    I aluways liked coins and apply the coins in works of art. Like this: Wall clock made with american coins. The coins are applied by the collage system on oil painting. Shades of colors are the american fla. In the frame of mahogany wood were applied american coins. Piece of extraordinary refinement and value. See photos in.
    Eduardo Henriques