March 20, 2000
The Incredible Gerta Ries Wiener
by Mel Wacks

A tribute to a wonderful artist, a unique person, and a good friend who died in her sleep on March 1, 2000 at the age of 101.
Copyright story reprinted by permission from the Sept. 14, 1998 issue of Coin World.

I first encountered Gerta Ries Wiener when I received a call from Medallic Art Company about 30 years ago. Medallic Art Company was then located in Manhattan, and had struck the first two medals in the Magnes Museum's young Jewish-American Hall of Fame series, which I had initiated in 1969.

Gerta Ries Wiener and Mel Wacks at the Jewish-American Hall of Fame exhibit at the Magnes Museum.

The representative informed me that someone had walked in with a plaster model for a medal. He put the "mystery" medallist on the phone, and I found out that Gerta Ries Wiener had been asked by her brother to create a portrait medal for Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis. Aha! That was a clue, since I had asked Victor Ries - who had created the very first medal in our series, honoring Rabbi Judah L. Magnes, as well as the unique rounded trapezoidal shape of our medals - to design a Brandeis medal for us. What I subsequently learned, is that Victor did not do portraits, and had passed the assignment along to his sister.

A young Gerta Ries had sculpted this award plaque for the "All American Package Competition/ Sponsored by Modern Packaging.”

Evidently, Gerta was told that by Medallic Art Co. that her first effort was not suitable, and so she redid it. I regret that I never saw her original work, but the final portrait - displaying the renowned jurist's Lincolnesque profile -- was quite good. Gerta, from the very beginning, took a deep interest in her subjects, reading and researching extensively. In a letter dated April 1971, she wrote, "A portrait should be much more than a literal rendition of features. But having a strong mental image of the man from what he had been and said, helped me to express some of his personality through my work." The reverse inscription, "Make real the brotherhood of man," was sculpted from a design by Victor Ries.

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1971), Louis Brandeis, Supreme Court Justice.

Jacob Marcus, the "Dean of Jewish-American Historians," wrote that "The Brandeis medal is beautiful. We are delighted to have it for the (American Jewish) Archives." And, I should point out (even though she was angry with me whenever I mentioned her age) that Gerta Ries Wiener was over 70 when she created this first medal!

It was not until four years later, that I again commissioned Mrs. Wiener to do a medal - this time, honoring Gershom Mendes Seixas, American Revolution patriot. She carefully studied period clothing and created a realistic portrait as well as a dramatic scene of four patriots removing ceremonial objects from their synagogue when the British captured New York. This was the first of many dynamic group scenes that Gerta would create for the Magnes Museum over the next three decades.

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1975), Gershom Mendes Seixas, Patriotic Rabbi.

Knowing that I had found a good thing, I immediately commissioned Gerta to design our next commemorative - the first in our series honoring a woman. The reverse design is notable in that it features Henrietta Szold along with 12 children, ranging from babies in diapers to teenagers -- representing the Youth Aliyah program that gave Holocaust survivors new homes in Palestine. This loving portrayal of youngsters on this and subsequent medals for the Magnes Museum reflect Gerta's close association with children. She illustrated "Dreamland," "Dimple Diggers," and other books, gave art classes for emotionally disturbed children, created puppets and performed marionette shows at schools.

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1976), Henrietta Szold, Founder of Hadassah.

Victor Ries produced his second medal for the Jewish-American Hall of Fame in 1977 (Touro Synagogue), and then it was Gerta's turn again. Produced to celebrate Golda Meir's 80th birthday, it also was issued on the artist's 80th birthday! This was the first medal in our series honoring a living person. Gerta actually tried to meet with Golda on a trip to Israel while she was working on the medal, but unfortunately the former Prime Minister was unavailable. This medal's reverse featured a group of people - of different faiths and ethnic backgrounds.

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1978), Golda Meir, Israel Prime Minister.

From 1981 through 1983, Gerta created three portrait medals in a row - for philanthropist and educator Rebecca Gratz, violin virtuoso Isaac Stern, and "Statue of Liberty" poetess Emma Lazarus. Gerta produced a lovely portrait of Rebecca, describing it as: "something lighter and pleasant to look at." For the reverse, Mrs. Wiener "decided that a simple inscription would be a welcome change after the crowds of people decorating the reverse of my last 3 medals."

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1981), Rebecca Gratz, Philanthropist.

In spite of looking at dozens of record covers, Gerta could not find a suitable portrait of Isaac Stern. She solved that problem by sitting through several showings of the documentary "From Mao to Mozart: Isaac Stern in China," going home and drawing the virtuoso's portrait from memory. Her original version showed Stern in a turtleneck sweater, that he appeared in for rehearsals. But I wasn't happy. I told her that he should wear a tuxedo, as he does for his concert performances. She definitely did not appreciate my comments! However, Gerta did change Stern's accouterment, and eventually liked the results. Gerta's neighbor, an amateur violinist, is very proud of the fact that he posed to show the artist exactly how musical instrument should be held. The medal's reverse was her first architectural design -Carnegie Hall's marquee (which has since been replaced).

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1982), Isaac Stern, Violin virtuoso.

Writing about the Emma Lazarus medal, Gerta said: "The reverse will please you with all those people!!" Actually there are 10 figures, including 6 children. The immigrants are standing near the ship's railing, staring wistfully at the Statue of Liberty in the distance, which is just "a tiny silhouette."

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1983), Emma Lazarus, Statue of Liberty poet.

When Gerta was a struggling artist in New York in the early 1920s, her husband encouraged her to create a portrait bust of New York Times' publisher Adolph Ochs, saying it would make her famous. But she decided not to pursue the matter. When given a second chance 60 years later, she did not again pass up the opportunity, saying: "The picture of Ochs is excellent. His looks certainly have improved since I saw his big photo hanging in the lobby of the old Times Building in 1922!" In fact, Gerta produced one of the most lifelike medallic portraits ever! Knowing my taste for crowd scenes, she wrote: "I'm sure you'll like it, since ha-ha, it has so many people on the reverse." (She was right. And the New York Times liked it too, ordering a large quantity.)

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1985), Adolph Ochs, New York Times Publisher.

The Ochs medal was pictured in the catalog of the 1987 Congress of FIDEM (International Federation of Medallic art) hosted by the American Numismatic Association in Colorado Springs. And Mrs. Wiener attended the conference . at the age of 89!

In 1987, when Gerta Ries Wiener's Justice Benjamin Cardozo medal appeared, she said: "He was a hard one to crack, and I do think I captured his 'hidden' smile!" Even though Gerta had said that she would not sculpt another architectural design (after Carnegie Hall), she did a superb job depicting the Supreme Court Building on this medal's reverse.

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1987), Benjamin Cardozo, Supreme Court Justice.

Three years later, Gerta's tenth medal for the Magnes Museum was issued honoring the developer of the Schick Test for diphtheria - Dr. Bela Schick. Here again, Gerta enlisted a neighbor - or actually the energetic daughter of a neighbor - to pose for the medal's reverse. Coincidentally, in 1924, Gerta Ries (before she was married) was awarded the commission to create a brochure promoting the Schick Test!

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1990), Bela Schick, Developed Schick Test for Diphtheria.

"When I got this commission," Gerta told Elaine Leotti, "I took the rough sketches to the almighty Art Director of Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, and he raised his arms to heaven and said: 'Miss Ries, we can't put wooden dolls on our folders - we want real people - nobody ever made anything like this!'" But this tenacious young woman stuck to her guns, and "85 million folders were distributed, their message heeded because of the colorful wooden dolls." "The almighty Art Director," reported Gerta, "was very happy with the results."

When she was preparing the sketches for the Jewish-American Hall of Fame's tribute to women's rights pioneer Ernestine Rose (issued in 1994 when Gerta was 96), the artist wrote, "I will enjoy doing her. she seemed to have had wit, humor and charm aside from her other good and rare qualities." I can vouch that Gerta Ries Wiener too was well endowed with these qualities. Knowing my predilection for crowds, Gerta humored me by depicting no less than 14 rapt listeners to Ms. Rose, a lecturer who was known as "Queen of the Platform."

Medal by Gerta Ries Wiener (1994), Ernestine Rose, Equal rights pioneer.

I had hoped that Gerta could produce an even dozen medals for the Magnes Museum. And so, she was commissioned to produce a commemorative for avant-garde writer Gertrude Stein. Gerta produced lovely drawings but, unfortunately, was not able to complete the sculpting before she suffered from a series of small strokes. It is hoped that another artist will be able to complete this project in the future .so that Gerta Ries Wiener's name will appear one more time on a notable work of medallic art.

I was delighted when informed that Gerta Ries Wiener was the 1998 winner of the American Numismatic Association's Numismatic Art Award for Excellence in Medallic Sculpture sponsored by the Franklin Mint. It was a great thrill for me to accept this well-deserved award in her honor, at the ANA banquet. It was a wonderful gift for Gerta's 100th birthday - that was celebrated on December 9, 1998.

Collectors wishing to own an example of Gerta Wiener's medallic art, can get information about availability and prices from the Jewish-American Hall of Fame Shop.

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