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The longest continuing series of commemoratives continues the Renaissance tradition of medallic portraits.

The Renaissance tradition of medallic portraiture lives on in what is now the longest continuing series (aside from those issued by the US Mint) of medals being issued in the United States. Inaugurated in 1969, the Jewish-American Hall of Fame medals are distinguished by their unique shape (rounded trapezoidal), high relief, and artistry. Creators include four winners of the American Numismatic Association's Numismatic Art Award for Excellence in Medallic Sculpture - Gerta Ries Wiener, Alex Shagin, Marika Somogyi and Paul Vincze - who deserve much of the credit for making this one of the most "important series of medals in recent years" (Catalogue of the 22nd Congress of the International Federation of Medallic Art, Helsinki, 1990).

The subjects are of wide interest to Jews and non-Jews alike. For instance, musical subjects include George Gershwin, Benny Goodman and Isaac Stern; notable women include Golda Meir and Emma Lazarus; and there are even horses (Levi Strauss and Haym Salomon medals), ships (including the Titanic), and architecture (Supreme Court Building, Monticello, etc.).

But let's return to the prima facie attraction of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame medals - portraits. Stephen Scher, writes in The Currency of Fame - Portrait Medals of the Renaissance: "One of the most original and complete means of fulfilling the Renaissance desire for fame and immortality was the portrait medal, for within the confines of this small, durable, portable, and easily reproduced object contained a wealth of information about the subject represented."

Portrait of Domenico Malatesta by Pisanello (c. 1395-1455).

While, during the Renaissance, portrait medals were principally commissioned by the subject himself (or herself) and given to family and friends, the subjects of the Jewish-American Hall of Fame have to merit their nomination by their accomplishments.

One might think that the artist would be restricted in his/her sculpting because the original 8" diameter models must be mechanically reduced to 2" diameter steel dies. This is not the case, since the reduction process precisely reproduces even the most subtle modeling details. An important part of the creative process is source material … ranging from paintings to photographs. Let's see how various artists approached their tasks.

Robert Russin

The optimum situation is for the medallic sculptor to create the original models from a live sitting with the subject. Of course this is impossible for historic figures, and extremely difficult to arrange for living subjects. But it did happen once in the 30 years of this project. Not that it was easy. Shortly before author Isaac Bashevis Singer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978, the Museum commissioned Robert Russin to create his medallic portrait. However it was not until nearly 5 years later that the sculptor was able to arrange for a personal sitting with the noted author. And the medal was finally issued in 1984 together with a quote "Free Will Is Life's Essence" (in English and Yiddish) personally supplied by Singer. Whereas original models are usually 8" diameter, Russin's was much larger, necessitating a double reduction to the 2" dies. The portrait is unusual because it is mostly below the upper surface of the medal, incused in the style of ancient Egyptian art. The sculptor captured the pixyish look of Singer, although some thought he looked devilish. Perhaps his appearance is a reflection of the demons, imps and spirits that inhabit his stories.

Paul Vincze

At the other extreme is the challenge for an artist to create a medallic likeness of someone whose portrait doesn't exist. That was the assignment facing Paul Vincze, when he was assigned the commemorative honoring Revolutionary War patriot Haym Salomon. But it did not daunt the world renowned artist who had previously sculpted President Truman and other world leaders from life, as well as having created official medals for all of Shakespeare's plays. After all, if one can create Romeo and Juliet, one can certainly imagine what Haym Salomon might have looked like. Vincze, alone of all the artists commissioned by the Magnes Musuem insisted on a round shape; he produced a classical profile which looked so authentic that the Jewish American War Veterans immediately borrowed the likeness for use on fundraising "stamps." Vincze's distinctive classical modelling technique is easily recognizable, and it is readily apparent why Daniel Friedenberg said "some of the finest commemoratives of our time … come from his studio."

Marika Somogyi

A popular source for portrait sculptors of 20th century personalities is photography. Marika Somogyi (Benny Goodman, Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Miller medals) had a plethora of photos to work from. In fact having too many sources can be almost as much of a problem as having too few. But choices must be made as to what will work best on a medal - where there is no color and the entire portrait must be contained in an area of only 4 square inches. The best picture came from Goodman's daughter, who personally assisted the artist. A contemporary cartoon of jitterbuggers makes the reverse as lively as "The King of Swing" deserves.

Photo by Lauterwasser, courtesy of Unitel.

For the Bernstein medal, Somogyi used an official photograph supplied by the Leonard Bernstein Society. Inscriptions are minimal on these commemoratives to avoid distracting from the art work.

Gerta Ries Wiener

Before photography became commonplace, engravings were used to reproduce pictures. This was the case for poet Emma Lazarus, whose engraving made by T. Johnson in 1872 when she was just 23 years old, was the inspiration for the 3-dimensional medallic portrait sculpted by Gerta Ries Wiener. The sensitive portrait is surrounded with her immortal words in her own handwriting, " Give me your tired, your poor … yearning to breathe free," that have become synonymous with the Statue of Liberty. Just like the Renaissance medals, this (and all other) Jewish-American Hall of Fame medals contain a "reverse with a text or some sort of figure or scene associated with the (honoree)." In this instance Ms. Wiener created a moving scene of immigrants -- men, women and children - as they gaze on the "Mother of Exiles" for the first time -- without any distracting inscriptions.

Ms. Wiener chose an innovative source for another medal -- a motion picture. After looking at dozens of photos on album covers, etc. she still hadn't found one that she liked of violin virtuoso Isaac Stern. But she solved her problem by sitting through the feature documentary "From Mozart to Mao" (about Stern's visit to China) several times, then running home to create a sculptured portrait. (But she did have a violin-playing neighbor pose with the instrument to help jog her memory.)

Alex Shagin

Alex Shagin utilized an unusual graphic source for a dual portrait on the Jewish-American Hall of Fame Titanic medal. Shortly after Ida Straus and businessman, former-Congressman, Isidor Straus chose to go down with the ship together rather than being separated, a song was published (in Yiddish!) commemorating their love. The drawing of the brave couple on the cover of that sheet music was recreated on the medal incused (below the surface). The photograph of "wireless" operator David Sarnoff receiving names of survivors was discovered in a 1958 issue of the magazine "Wisdom." The meticulous portrayal of the doomed ocean liner on the reverse is based on intense research by Shagin, whereas the dramatic scene of survivors - showing literally dozens of people - came from the artist's imagination.

Hal Reed

Photo courtesy Houdini Historical Center, Appleton, WI.

Houdini had one of the most famous faces of the early 20th century - appearing in newspapers and handbills around the world. Reed chose the photograph that was Houdini's personal favorite, as the source of his medallic portrait. On the reverse, a pair of handcuffs of the type used by the master escape artist is combined with lettering adapted from an original Houdini poster. But what makes this commemorative truly remarkable is the fact that it is actually two medals in one - precisely fitting together sort of like an Oreo cookie. Opening it up reveals an Halloween scene with adorable costumed children surrounded by various demons. This design, sculpted with contrasting positive and negative reliefs, reflects Houdini's debunking of phony spiritualists and the fact that he died on October 31, 1926.

Reed also utilized an oil painting … for his portrait of Commodore Uriah P. Levy. It was painted by Thomas Sully, and is in the collection of the American Jewish Historical Society.

Jacques Schnier

Gift of Sydney & Barbara Borsuk to the Magnes Museum, Berkeley, CA.

Sculptor Jacques Schnier produced only two numismatic items in his life - the 1936 Bay Bridge US commemorative Half Dollar and, nearly 40 years later, the Jewish-American Hall of Fame medal honoring New York Governor and Senator Herbert H. Lehman. The portrait is in very high relief. Schnier liked the stylized Star of David consisting of interlinking triangles, that he created for the medal's reverse, so much that a few years later he created a large 3-dimensional sculpture on the same theme that is now on display in the permanent collection of the Magnes Museum.

Victor Ries

Ironically, the series' very first medal by Victor Ries (who also created the unique shape), did not include a portrait. Rather, it features an architectural theme (the Hebrew University and Israel Museum, in Jerusalem) in honor of Judah Magnes, who was the first president of the Hebrew University.

Later, Ries created the Jewish-American Hall of Fame commemorative for the Touro Synagogue, America's oldest Jewish house of worship. Ries used unique techniques. While virtually all other medallists mold their models in clay (or Plasticine) and cast them in plaster, Ries either hammered his designs out of a single sheet of metal (repousse) - i.e. the Touro Synagogue reverse -- or built them by welding together small pieces of shaped metal - i.e. the Magnes and Touro obverses --adapting the technique he used when creating large pieces of decorative architectural sculptures.

Susan Fisher and Mel Wacks

Illustration by David Wander from "Haggadah in Memory of the Holocaust," Goldman's Art Gallery, Haifa, 1988.

There's an alternative to sculpting 3-dimensional original models. The mint can produce a die directly from a black and white drawing. Everything in black will appear below the surface, and thus when the medal is antiqued these areas will be darkened. Two reverse designs have been created in this manner - for Isaac Bashevis Singer (by calligrapher Susan Fisher), inscibed "FREE WILL IS LIFE'S ESSENCE" in English and Yiddish, and Elie Wiesel (by Mel Wacks), inscribed "NEVER SHALL I FORGET."

Eugene Daub


Pics from yesterday

Eugene Daub (third from left) and family at unveiling of Rosa Parks statue.

Eugene Daub, who has created a number of Jewish-American Hall of Fame medals, including Mordecai Noah (2012), pictured above, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg (2013), is one of America’s leading sculptors of public monuments. His sculpture of Rosa Parks was the first commission of a full-sized statue approved and funded by the U.S. Congress since 1873. It was installed in the National Statuary Hall in the United States Capitol on February 27 in a ceremony attended by President Obama, House and Senate leaders, and Civil Rights leaders.


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