The Weinmans: Arbiters of Taste in U.S. Coinage
BY ED REITER
If Augustus Saint-Gaudens was the gold standard for U.S. coinage artistry, Adolph Alexander Weinman was surely the silver standard.
Weinman designed two silver coins that tower above all others issued in that metal by the United States Mint: the Winged Liberty (or “Mercury”) dime and the Walking Liberty half dollar. Both were winners in a limited coin design competition staged by the U.S. Treasury in 1915, and both have remained winners ever since with collectors and connoisseurs of U.S. coinage art.
That contest and those coins both seem far ago, but Weinman’s artistic legacy endured in flesh and blood until very recently: His son Robert, born by serendipity in that same year of 1915, died on Sept. 7, 2003, after a life similarly devoted to lofty artistic pursuits.
Robert Weinman, like his father, gained acclaim as a sculptor and medalist – and like his father, he left a mark, though admittedly a smaller one, on U.S. coinage art: He served as chairman of the judging panel that chose the special designs for the three Bicentennial coins of 1975-76.
Shortly after the Bicentennial contest in 1974, I visited Bob Weinman at his rustic studio in an outbuilding of his home in Bedford , N.Y. , and interviewed him in depth about both the contest and his memories of his father. His responses were frank and insightful. It was, in fact, quite possibly the most intriguing interview I have ever conducted as a numismatic writer.
My immediate objective was to get Weinman’s views on the entries and the winners in the Bicentennial contest – and his bluntness startled me.
“I really don’t think what we got was a great bargain,” Weinman remarked. “Nothing we selected was a real winner I’d fight to the death for. In terms of what we had to work with, though, I think we did the best we could.”
The judges had been confronted with nearly 900 entries – and since the contest was open to all Americans, many of them came from rank amateurs, including young children. They featured such preposterous themes as President Richard Nixon (the man in the White House at the time) talking with Henry Kissinger on the telephone, hula dancers swaying to and fro, and various people and animals on the Moon. There was even one design depicting the nation – presumably 200 years earlier – as a fetus inside its mother’s womb.
“An easy 500 just weren’t worth wasting anybody’s time,” Weinman told me, “and even among the better ones, it was a struggle. I think naively I was hoping for a half dozen to really grab me by the lapels and say, ‘This is it, take me home.’ I was a little surprised the sculptors hadn’t done better.”
Then again, there were precious few sculptors – or professional artists of any type – among the entrants. Most were either busy with other commissions (the Bicentennial being a busy time for medallic artists) or just didn’t consider the creative effort worthwhile because of the open nature and uncertainty of the contest.
The eventual winners were Jack Ahr, whose Colonial drummer boy appeared on the Bicentennial quarter; Seth Huntington, whose portrait of Independence Hall graced the half dollar, and Dennis Williams, whose depiction of the Liberty Bell superimposed on the Moon won a place on the Eisenhower dollar.
In retrospect, all three designs have stood the test of time rather well – and all look far more like “winners” today than most of the 50-state quarters are likely to look artistically 30 years from now.
Robert Weinman wasn’t a crusader for upgrading coinage art, but he was plain-spoken when asked for his opinion on the subject.
“The current U.S. coin designs leave much to be desired,” he told me in that interview three decades ago. “It’s kind of pathetic that such an allegedly great nation is satisfied with such positively lousy coinage.”
Weinman saw merit in some of the current designs; for instance, he liked the portraits of Thomas Jefferson on the nickel and John F. Kennedy on the half dollar. For the most part, however, he found U.S. coins static – even stagnant – as works of art. And he saw two principal reasons: the Treasury’s reluctance to change designs and its practice in recent decades – with the notable exception of the Bicentennial contest – of excluding outside sculptors on the all-too-infrequent occasions when new designs do come along.
“The problem is an old one,” he observed. “It goes back, I suppose, to the days of Charles Barber, when he was Mint engraver and President Teddy Roosevelt called on Augustus Saint-Gaudens to model U.S. coins on the Greek classics. Objections were raised from the start: The coins wouldn’t stack, they wore too rapidly, and so forth. The aesthetes lost that round to the technicians, and we’ve had an uphill battle ever since.”
Weinman’s most fascinating comments concerned his famous father. It was clear that he had been in awe of “the old man” while growing up, and that a sort of love-hate relationship existed between the pair.
Life with their German-born father wasn’t always easy for young Bob Weinman and his two older siblings, brother Howard and sister Katherine.
“As a parent… if he didn’t like the way you were obeying the rules, why, he’d set up a new set of rules. Right or wrong, you couldn’t win. He was always right.
“I always had the feeling we were poor, because to get a nickel out of that guy for an ice cream cone or a movie, you had to take so much guff. I thought, ‘Jeez, we must be starving.’ He certainly had me cowed. In fact, it wasn’t until I went in the Army in 1942 that I finally began to realize, ‘Hey, I don’t have two heads after all. The world isn’t that complicated and I’m not innately bad.’ It took one Adolf [Hitler] to get me over the other Adolph.”
Young Weinman encountered the same kind of attitude when he worked in his father’s studio as an apprentice. “For the client, nothing was too good; for the employee, everything was too good. And as far as the family was concerned, that varied with the barometric pressure.”
He hastened to add, however, that A. A. Weinman had positive qualities, too – and not just his unquestioned gift for turning out superior works of art.
“Dad was a tower of ethical strength,” he exclaimed. “As far as honesty goes, he was strictly beyond reproach. If he were judging art works, or serving on a committee to select a portrait statue for East Dubuque , Iowa , or the like, he would do impeccably.
“He also was very generous to young artists. And that wasn’t always the case with other leading figures in the field. It always seemed to me that if [James Earle] Fraser, for example, had six years’ work in the studio and another job came in, he’d take it – and six years later, it might come out of the studio. But Adolph would parcel it out to one of the younger men, so they could earn while they learned.”
For all the adulation his coin designs have received over the years, Adolph Weinman never seemed overly impressed with them, his son recalled.
“He never really spoke about the coins, nor did he particularly save them,” Robert Weinman said. “I think he was very satisfied with what he had done; I had the feeling that he was very pleased to have done it. But, from his standpoint, it was just another job – and to a workaholic like him, it was always the next job that was really pressing.”
According to Bob Weinman, his father preferred to work on larger-scale projects and thought of himself primarily as an architectural sculptor.
“One time,” he told me, “one of Dad’s students said she had studied with ‘Adolph Weinman, the medalist.’ When he heard about it, he was furious. ‘Medalist!’ he thundered. ‘I’m no medalist!’”
There are striking similarities between the striding figure of Liberty on the Walking Liberty half dollar and the French coinage figure of the “Sower” fashioned a few years earlier by Louis Oscar Roty. Some have suggested that A. A. Weinman used the earlier coin as a model – and they didn’t get much of an argument from his son.
“I never heard of that or associated it until somewhere in the last decade,” the younger Weinman told me in 1974, “and it certainly did strike a responsive chord. You know, they seem to be cousins. As to whether Dad actually used it, I can’t answer. The only thing I can say is that oftentimes, I think, an artist is guiltless in such situations. He may see something in 1897 that strikes his fancy, and all of a sudden it pops up unannounced two decades later. Is it a steal? Has it been cooking in his subconscious? It’s hard to say. They’re close, certainly, but I do think the Walking Liberty is distinctly American in appearance.”
Robert Weinman himself had few reservations about the artistic quality of his father’s two coins.
“The Liberty Head on the dime would have benefited, I think, by being a little softer in its treatment of the neck,” he observed. “It’s a little too bolt-upright – hence, I think, too masculine. But everybody should make mistakes like that! As for the 50-cent piece, I have absolutely no quarrel. I feel that A. A. did handsomely by both sides. For handling all the elements in the design, it can’t be beaten, I feel.”
Weinman regarded the dime’s reverse as “a startling instance of the triumph of such an intangible thing as taste.”
“It seems to me,” he said, “all the elements on that reverse have dignity – and, if you will, niceness – whereas on the back of the Roosevelt dime, the torch kind of looks like an ice cream cone. It’s just the difference, I think, between a finer talent and a lesser talent.”
To the best of his son’s knowledge, A. A. Weinman never made a point of setting aside examples of his coins.
“After Dad’s death in 1952, we found a couple of verdigrised 50-cent pieces in one of the desk drawers at his studio, but that was about it,” he related. “The only real collection he had was a set of his Liberty dimes, which a neighbor had given him a few years earlier – possibly for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary in 1948.”
In a number of important respects, Robert Weinman’s career paralleled that of his father. A. A. Weinman served as president of the National Sculpture Society for three years; so did his son. In 1920, the American Numismatic Society honored the elder Weinman with its J. Sanford Saltus Award for distinction in the field of medallic art; in 1964, it similarly honored his son.
Still, Adolph Weinman cast a long shadow – and even near the end of his long and distinguished career, Robert Weinman found himself dealing with a sort of identity crisis. That, in fact, prompted him to decline an invitation to take part in the contest aimed at obtaining designs for the 1988 U.S. commemorative coins honoring that year’s Olympians.
“There’s too much of an old-man bugaboo about that whole coin thing,” he said. “Dad did so well. And it’s like too much of my life, where everybody’s saying, ‘Oh, he’s been there first.’
“He’s a tough act to follow.”
In terms of artistic achievement, A. A. Weinman was indeed a tough act for anyone – let alone his own son – to follow. His two exceptional coins have only grown in stature as masterworks of numismatic art. In his own way, however, Robert Weinman practiced and perpetuated the same dedication to excellence as his father. And he made his own enduring mark despite his father’s shadow.
Between them, they have left a remarkable legacy.