Mr. Brenner's Lincoln: A Profile
How a Lithuanian Engraver Evolved Into One of America's Most Celebrated Medallic Artists
First of two parts.
[PART 1][PART 2]
"The name of an artist on the coin is essential for the student of history as it enables him to trace environments and conditions of the time said coin was produced." VICTOR DAVID BRENNER,
No single work of art in the history of man has been reproduced more times than sculptor Victor David Brenner's profile of Abraham Lincoln. At roughly 450 billion and counting, the United States Mint has churned out more Lincoln cents than all other world coins of all time, combined. Stacked on top of each other, they would reach well, you get the picture. You've probably seen one. And so has everyone else.
The cent is far commoner than the $5 bill, which also bears Lincoln's portrait, so Brenner's bearded likeness above all others is what our subconscious conjures when we envision the Great Emancipator.
Why? Why that image? Where did Brenner get the idea to depict him that way? Brenner didn't know Lincoln. He had been dead 16 years before Brenner was born, and 35 years before Brenner came to America. And he sported a beard only the last 4-1/2 years of his life.
The end of the story is well chronicled; we begin there. The end of the story deals with the selection of Brenner's design.
President Theodore Roosevelt wanted to turn the nation's coinage into little tableaus to showcase the pinnacles of American artistic achievement. America was experiencing an artistic renaissance, and Roosevelt believed the pedestrian Liberty Head designs of the U.S. Mint's chief engraver, Charles E. Barber, on the nickel, dime, quarter and half dollar were unbefitting a country whose classically trained artists were beginning to create competent monumental sculpture.
After more than half a century, he felt it also was time to replace Christian Gobrecht's repetitive Liberty heads on the $2.50, $5 and $10 gold coins and James B. Longacre's feather-bonneted Liberty on the "Indian" cent and his standard Liberty on the double eagle ($20 gold piece), as well.
Roosevelt wanted the preeminent Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign the series, beginning with the cent and the gold coins, but Saint-Gaudens was dying of cancer and, with extensive aid from his assistant Henry Hering, completed only new $10 and $20 gold pieces.
It was a frustrating but passing setback for old T.R., who liked what he saw in 1908 when he posed for a medal honoring workers on the Panama Canal. In 1907, Harvard-educated painter-journalist Francis Davis Millet, a friend of Saint-Gaudens (who attended Millet's wedding), created the preliminary artwork for the medal, depicting Roosevelt on one side and the Culebra Cut on the other. The task of preparing the dies fell to a 37-year-old Lithuanian émigré named Brenner.
This was standard procedure.
"In this country, as elsewhere, prior to the establishment of the French Société des Amis de la Medaille , medal-making had sunk to a department of trade," contemporary art critic Charles H. Caffin wrote in American Masters of Sculpture (Doubleday, 1903).
"A sculptor or painter, with no practical knowledge of the possibilities and limitations of the cutting process, would be commissioned to produce the design, while its execution in the die was turned over to a more or less skilled operative."
Nearly a century later, this approach would be repeated during the first five years of the 50-state Washington quarter program when the U.S. Mint accepted coin designs from in-state artists, often graphic illustrators, and tasked the modeling to staff artisans. The Mint calls the latter "sculptor-engravers," intimating proficiency in both disciplines. Each today is classically trained, but is it possible to take as much pride in executing someone else's artwork as in executing one's own?
Caffin's comments incidentally help us understand why Charles Barber, a passable engraver, was not highly regarded as an artist, i.e., sculptor.
Just as coins were prized chiefly for their utility as little facilitators of commerce, so were medals and tokens, whether Indian peace medals or Civil War store cards, valued mainly for the messages they conveyed. Art was secondary.
"About the middle of the last century [the 1800s] there appears to have been a decline in the public encouragement of the medallist," Millet, who today would be called the "concept artist" of the Panama medal, wrote in 1907. "The result has been that while there has always been a considerable demand for the work of competent medallists, and while this country has produced architects, sculptors and painters of world-wide reputation, no medallist has come to the front as a master in his profession."
What sculptor achieved a position of importance in 19th-century and early 20th-century America without a serious monumental work to his credit?
While Saint-Gaudens' medallic work won critical acclaim, fame stemmed from his "Standing Lincoln" (1885) in Chicago and his contemplative Adams monument in Washington, D.C., not his coin designs; none was issued in his lifetime.
In the case of Bela Lyon Pratt, fame stemmed from "The Genius of Navigation" series for the 1892-93 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, not his unique intaglio $2.50 and $5 Indian Head gold coins.
It stemmed from James Earle Fraser's "End of the Trail" (1894), not his Buffalo nickel ... from Hermon MacNeil's Indian subjects at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, not his Standing Liberty quarter ... from Adolph A. Weinman's "Destiny of the Red Man" for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair, not his Winged Liberty ("Mercury") dime or his Walking Liberty half dollar.
"He never really spoke about the coins, nor did he particularly save them," Weinman's son, Robert A. Weinman, told COINage Senior Editor Ed Reiter in a 1974 interview. Adolph Weinman considered himself above all an architectural sculptor and, echoing the prejudices of the day, eschewed the label "medallist," his son said, despite his medallic accomplishments.
It is a logical extension, argues Richard Guy Wilson, a University of Virginia art history professor, that the same artists who were fabricating grand Romanesque expressions of their newly rich patrons' status should be conscripted to design the awakening nation's coinage.
"The American Renaissance was by nature an art and architecture of capitalism," Wilson wrote in The American Renaissance, 1876-1917 (Brooklyn Museum, 1979). "It appropriated images and symbols of past civilizations and used them to create a magnificent American pageant."
"The artist played a leading role. He could provide a setting of leisured elegance bearing the patina of class and taste for people who were frequently one generation removed from overalls and shovel. Fittingly, the artist designed the currency of capitalism," Wilson further wrote, noting the works of Saint-Gaudens, Fraser, Brenner and Weinman and Kenyon Cox's artwork for the $100 bill.
"The artist did not play an avant-garde role, rebelling against society and the inequalities of wealth. Rather, he became a part of the elite."
It was the artists' freestanding and architectural accomplishments in the first place, their contributions to the nationalistic panoply, that put this tight circle of sculptors in the running for the coin commissions for which today, in an America with no more need to boast, they are far better known.
Brenner had no large monuments in his portfolio, and his entry into this circle was unorthodox and came only after he chose to graduate from engraver to sculptor, craftsman to artist.
The son of a mechanic and seal cutter in the Jewish community of Shavli, Lithuania (then part of Russia), Brenner apprenticed with his father from age 13, and at 16 set out on his own to engrave jewelry, seals and dies in larger neighboring cities. Speaking no English, he was just shy of his 19th birthday when he came with another young man to New York City in 1890 and found jobs in his familiar trade. In one such position, medal collector Sigmund H. Oettinger discovered him and, according to Caffin, "awakened in the young man a longing to be himself an artist."
In 1891, Brenner enrolled briefly (one month) at Cooper Union in New York to learn about molding clay; in 1893, the National Academy established a course in coin design and hired Brenner to teach it. He spent the 1890s building his engraving business and taking medallic commissions. In 1897, he modeled his only other coins four denominations for a one-year type series for the Dominican Republic that he copied from existing designs.
By 1898, he had saved enough money to study in Paris and travel in Italy and Germany for three years. He returned and opened his own New York City studio; then it was back to Paris for 1905 and most of 1906 an important period later in our story before coming home to stay.
By contrast with other coin artists of the Gilded Era who excelled at sculpture in the round, "Brenner's best work has been portrait plaques and the heads upon the obverse of medals," the critic Caffin wrote in 1903.
"As might be expected of one whose period of study has been so short, he is weak in composition and freehand drawing, nor does he display much inventiveness of fancy. On the other hand, he has an extraordinarily direct vision, quickened by experience in so exacting an occupation as die cutting and, moreover, a very mobile sympathy. The latter helps him to be interested at once in his subject, and with so much affection and reverence for the personality that his portrayal exhibits a very unusual degree of intimacy."
Millet lauded Brenner's "taste and temperament" in a March 1907 exhibition catalog of the artist's works, saying he had "already achieved eminence" as a medallist. Millet could not have known that Brenner's compassion for his subjects was about to catapult him onto center stage.
The seminal moment came either in Brenner's studio at 114 E. 28th Street or, in an alternative version cited by medallic art expert D. Wayne Johnson of Torrington, Conn., at Roosevelt's Oyster Bay home. While Roosevelt was sitting for the Panama medal, he and Brenner hit it off. Considering both men's enthusiasm for fine art, one can only imagine the conversation. Brenner showed Roosevelt a model, or more likely a bronze plaquette, of his Lincoln bust, and the president decided it would translate beautifully to a coin.
It did. The Lincoln cent closely replicates a plaque Brenner initially created in 1907 to capitalize on the upcoming centennial of Lincoln's birth, thinking he would find plenty of buyers.
The first production run of Brenner's Lincoln figure was a uniface 7x9.5-inch plaque mounted on greenish marble with the wording "Copyright 1907 by V.D. Brenner" at the lower right. A pristine example sold in a Heritage auction in February 2007 for $3,107, while a second example with cracked marble fetched $1,792.50.
Brenner produced his Lincoln in several shapes and sizes, always with the same profile. (When it works, it works. Why change it? Even the president liked it.) Plaques ran as large as 11x13.75 inches (280x350 mm), and modern after-casts of the larger plaque are known, according to Brenner collector Michael Turoff of Flushing, New York.
Smaller contemporary copies often were awarded as school prizes and if the mark "S. KLABER & CO. FOUNDERS, N.Y." appears on the back, it's an original from 1907, Turoff said (although this mark isn't present on every original).
Brenner's Lincoln even showed up on a 22x28-inch bronze tablet depicting his bust in medallic form next to the text of the Gettysburg Address, cast by Gorham Co. and sold to half a dozen schools and public buildings. The City of New York purchased one such tablet in 1909 for the façade of Brooklyn's Borough Hall.
It was probably a 1908 version of the uniface plaque, sans 1907 copyright, that Roosevelt saw in Brenner's studio, as illustrated in Cornelius Vermeule's Numismatic Art in America (Belknap Press, Harvard University, 1971).
Brenner apparently shopped around for duplication work. In 1908, another Brenner design was produced by Tiffany & Co., as noted in Q. David Bowers' unpublished Fifty Favorite Numismatic Pearls. Even the U.S. Mint got in on the deal: Beginning in 1908, it struck at least 350 of Brenner's Lincoln plaquettes at 2.65x3.5 inches (67x89.9 mm), according to Mint records cited in the Journal of the Token and Medal Society, said former TAMS president H. Joseph Levine of Presidential Coin & Antique Co. in Alexandria, Virginia.
But it was a "desk medal" version by Gorham that Brenner ultimately gave to Roosevelt, according to Roger W. Burdette's newly released Renaissance of American Coinage, 1909-1915 (Seneca Mills Press, 2007). In this form, Brenner's Lincoln with the dual dates 1809 and 1909, is in circular medallic style at the left; at the right is a view of a small eagle perched on a steep cliff overlooking a surging ocean with the words, "PRESERVE PROTECT DEFEND." This was meant to stand upright on a desk, and a large eagle with wings spread atop a column joins the two circles like the frame in a pair of eyeglasses.
At first, it was not clear which denomination would best suit Brenner's Lincoln. Sol Taylor, author of The Standard Guide to the Lincoln Cent (1999), notes that Brenner submitted designs for both the cent and nickel; Burdette cites correspondence indicating the half dollar was under discussion, as well.
In a letter of Feb. 1, 1909 to Mint Director Frank Leach, "Brenner laid out his grand plan for coin designs: a Lincoln half dollar, the cent and nickel, one with a helmeted head of Liberty and the other with a walking Liberty imitative of the French two-franc coin," Burdette writes.
Brenner wasn't looking far when he mimicked Louis-Oscar Roty's 1897-98 reverses for France's 50-centime and 1- and 2-franc coins and, in another submission, Roty's famous "Sower" obverse (La Semeuse). Brenner studied under Roty in France. The only question, as Burdette wonders, is how Brenner thought he could get away with it.
He couldn't but ironically Weinman, the only coin designer of the era who didn't study in France, did get away with it less than a decade later with his Walking Liberty half dollar. Or should we call it the American Sower?
Brenner's Roty-inspired olive sprig, which he had crudely sketched, turned into two stylized wheat stalks "a brilliant choice even if Brenner was unaware of it," said Johnson. "The stalks form a frame around the portrait on the opposite side, like a wreath on a typical medal reverse. There is a technical reason for this in that it equalizes the flow of the metal mass during striking."
Brenner's sculpted obverse design, wherein he omitted the dual dates, passed Mint muster, with modifications not to his Lincoln bust but to the field. The Mint added the date and the statutory inscription "Liberty" and because the process was still under way when William Howard Taft succeeded the iconoclastic Roosevelt in March 1909, "In God We Trust" made its first-ever appearance a one-cent coin on the new president's orders.
Taft's interference delayed final preparations. According to Taylor, Barber, the hapless Mint engraver, merely downscaled Brenner's Lincoln head to make room for the motto and beveled the base of the bust, moving it away from the rim for mechanical reasons. Otherwise, with only the subtlest of changes in details some by Brenner himself to make it, in his words, "more intimate, deeper, more kind and personal [and] closer to the man," the final Lincoln design was true to Brenner's original 1907 bas-relief.
"Victor D. Brenner did not choose the 'genial Lincoln' as his model because he was to design a new coin," The Christian Science Monitor wrote in August 1909, when the coins were finally issued. "It was because Brenner had already made a medallion of the 'genial Lincoln' that the new coin was thought of in the first place."
Brenner's hopes for a Lincoln half dollar in his Feb. 1 letter must have been quickly rebuffed; within weeks, he was talking as if he always intended for his Lincoln to go on the cent.
"The life of a coin is 25 years, according to the law, and the time for the penny and the nickel has expired," he said in late February 1909 (probably at a meeting with the press, as his remarks in The Numismatist were nearly identical to this version from The Christian Science Monitor).
"It seemed to me that the nickel already had a very practical design, and so I turned my attention to what would be most fitting for the one-cent coin. Naturally, the portrait of Lincoln suggested itself, this being his centennial, and besides, I was going to make an anniversary medal for my friends [another adaptation of his Lincoln plaque], and my mind was full of Lincoln."
"I would rather have Lincoln's face on the penny than on a $20 gold piece," Brenner said in March.
And Brenner would rather have had his full surname on the coins and did, in early models but before he knew it, he was fighting just to keep his initials.
Released Aug. 2, the new cents were wildly popular and were sold in the streets for a premium; it was the first time in history that a U.S. president appeared on a regular-issue coin. By Aug. 3, congressional critics who were still chagrined over the executive branch's departure from the Liberty head tradition, complained that the designer's initials on the reverse were too prominent.
By Aug. 5, Treasury officials had decided to remove them and all hell broke loose as speculators scrambled for every example they could find, in hopes the limited-issue design would soar in value.
"So great did the crush become [at the New York City Subtreasury] in Pine Street, from Nassau to William Street, that the police reserves had to be called out," The New York Times reported Aug. 6.
The initials came off. Brenner was incensed. Depicting a president might be new, but a designer's initials weren't. East Coast speculators never reaped their profits; nearly 28 million "VDB" cents had rolled out of the Philadelphia Mint. (West Coasters fared considerably better, with only 484,000 examples from the San Francisco Mint.)
A degree of vindication came in 1918, six years before Brenner's death, when the initials were restored to the cent, smaller this time, at the base of Lincoln's bust where they would remain.
And what of that bust? We have seen that Brenner's inspiration for his initial olive-sprig reverse design was a creation of his Parisian mentor, Roty. Where did he get the idea for his Lincoln?
We find out next month and make a discovery along the way.
Incidentally, stacked atop one another, not even side-by-side, 450 billion Lincoln cents would stretch to the moon and almost all the way back again.
©2007 MILLER MAGAZINES INC./LEON WORDEN. RIGHTS RESERVED.
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