President Reagan’s signing into law Dec. 23, 1981, legislation
calling for the issuance of a half dollar in 1982 commemorating the
250th anniversary of George Washington’s birth brought excitement and
great collector expectations.
The authorization of the first U.S. commemorative coin in more than
a quarter century also brought excitement to the Philadelphia Mint,
where the chief sculptor-engraver, Elizabeth Jones, was getting
settled in, having been sworn into office Oct. 27, 1981. Her first
assignment would be designing the new coin.
Authorizing legislation mandated that designs for both the obverse
and reverse of the coin be “emblematic” of the Washington anniversary,
but did not dictate any specifics. Thus, Jones was able to work
Jones immediately decided that she would like to create a
nontraditional likeness of Washington. On the three previously issued
U.S. coins depicting Washington (1900 Lafayette Monument dollar, 1926
Sesquicentennial half dollar, and the circulating Washington quarter
dollar), he had been shown in standard, traditional busts.
The new chief sculptor-engraver chose to show Washington on
horseback, in military uniform, at approximately age 50. She studied
facial details of the various Washington portraits in major museum
collections that she could identify as having been painted from life
sittings. She drew inspiration from Rembrandt Peale’s painting
depicting Washington astride a horse that she found in the portrait
gallery of the Second Bank of the United States building in
Philadelphia. And Thomas Sully’s portrait of Washington on horseback
in the Union League Club in Philadelphia also influenced her work.
On the reverse, Jones considered depicting Wakefield, Washington’s
birthplace. But she abandoned the idea when she learned that the house
standing at Wakefield is not an original structure. Instead she
decided to show Mount Vernon.
Jones, a sculptor used to working in 3-D, was asked by Mint Director
Donna Pope to submit obverse and reverse sketches so the designs could
be approved by the Commission of Fine Arts and by the secretary of the Treasury.
Treasurer Angela “Bay” Buchanan’s April 21 announcement that the
designs had been approved set off an immediate clamor for the design
sketches to be made public. Jones was taken aback. She had considered
them design concepts and had continued to refine them. She begged Pope
not to release the design sketches, but Pope decided to release the
sketches on April 27.
Unfazed, Jones continued refining the designs on the plaster models
until the moment it was time to make galvanos and dies.