World Coins

France's Sower influences Walking Liberty design

Editor's note: this is the final part of a story exploring the intersection, influence and imitation between American and world coins. The story originally appeared in the February 2016 monthly issue of Coin World.

American collectors may not recognize the name of French medalist and designer Louis Oscar Roty, but they surely are familiar with his most famous design. 

La Semeuse, or The Sower, is a walking personification of Liberty that some experts say is similar to or was the inspiration for the Walking Liberty half dollar introduced in 1916 and designed by Adolph A. Weinman. Another coin of Weinman’s design, the Winged Liberty Head dime, also debuted in 1916, and it is not immune from the suggestion that there is a “French Connection.”

Dr. George Frederick Kunz, writing in the 1913 American Journal of Numismatics, calls Roty the “leader of the modern French school of medallists.” 

Roty’s work includes a range of coinage for several other nations, including Chile. 

His most famous coin design is that created for French coins in 1897. 

This, the aforementioned Sower design, was used for the 50-centime and 1-, 2- and 5-franc coins through 1920. 

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“Possibly no coin ever had a greater influence on the taste of a country than has had his coin, La Semeuse, ‘The Sower,’ which was a radical change from former types of coinage,” Kunz writes. “It possessed such a marked and individual quality that it brought Roty instant recognition. ...” 

Medalist and Lincoln cent designer Victor David Brenner was a pupil of Roty’s, and Kunz notes a resemblance between the two. “Much of [Brenner’s] work shows the strength and delicacy of that of his master, of whom he is a worthy successor.” 

Kunz presents in his paper a bevy of comments and praise from Roty’s fellow artists and scholars of the era, including comments from T.L. Comparette, curator of the U.S. Mint collection in the early 20th century. 

Read the rest of this feature on how world coins inspired notable U.S. coins:

The modern critic Vermeule, writing in Numismatic Art in America, cites a 1913 description of Roty by American coin designer Hermon Macneil that echoes that praise.

MacNeil said, “[Roty], of course, was very eminent, and in most of his works as a medalist expressed very much the style that France has produced in sculpture during the last ten years. I mean that clean, fluent, aesthetic quality, that has considerable femininity in its makeup, as opposed to the more vigorously constructed medal of the Renaissance. ... The above quality is particularly charming: much of it is due, however, to his rare taste in placing or spacing his design within the medal or plaque.”

MacNeil went on to say that the sowing Marianne of the French silver coinage was certainly one of Roty’s best works. 

“It was, of course, the Sower that was to influence Weinman in his design for the walking figure of Liberty of the half dollar in [1916],” Vermeule wrote.

With Weinman’s creation, wrote Vermeule, a “new vitality permeated traditional elements with a power worthy of the exquisite timelessness of the Greek engraver Euainetos at the end of the fifth century B.C.”

Vermeule continues: “The Liberty Walking design particularly gives the true feeling for breadth and sculptural surfaces on the scale of a coin.” He continues: “These surfaces are formal, like a well-carved marble or precisely cast bronze relief for a war memorial. They are not free and plastic, like [James Earl] Fraser’s [Indian Head] nickel, which conveys the impression of its clay model turned into metal. The spacing of the word LIBERTY parallels the success of the [Winged Liberty Head] dime, and the rising sun amid landscape anchors the motion of Liberty, her olive branch and her starry cloak. The debt to Roty’s Sower is obvious, but the Liberty Walking is an original creation, not a slavish copy. This half dollar, one of the greatest coins of the United States — if not of the world — is as modern as official sculpture can ever be. It has a combination of naturalism, classicism, and dignified inner balance, a generally suave figure. ...”

The Sower remained a constant design on French coinage throughout much of the century-plus that followed its introduction, through wars, new governments and even a new currency (the euro) that debuted in 2002. Marianne, the Sower, is forever linked to the French people and the coins of France.

The intersections of design influence are numerous, and would provide fodder for a book, or offers the exhibitor a topic of rich study.

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