To find the history of America’s great artists, D. Wayne Johnson went searching for family.
Well, sort of — the intrepid expert in medals (and the original editor of Coin World) enrolled in a college class about genealogy, traveling to archives and exploring new resources as he learned how to create biographies.
But instead of looking for his family members, Johnson was hunting the likes of Victor David Brenner and Bela Lyon Pratt, and thousands of other “medallists.” That spelling, with the double l, is intended to distinguish the recipient of an award medal (medalist) from those artists who create medals.
Johnson’s massive records are beginning to become available publicly, recently with the publication of Who’s Who Among American Medallists, a 388-page book sharing biographies of “the artists of our country’s coins and medals, 1652 to date.”
Artists who worked on tokens are included, too. The work is a companion to Johnson’s Monograms of American Coin and Medal Artists.
The new directory is a compendium of brief biographies of 4,137 artists. Both living artists and those of the past are included for their work in creating the rare form of relief sculpture, often miniature works of art, in the field of numismatics.
With these works, Johnson wants to peel back the veil of secrecy under which these artists labor, he said.
However, that has been a challenge, since few medallic works are signed by their artists. Just 20 percent of numismatic items issued in the 19th century are signed and included in the book; 80 percent of those issued in the 20th century are identified and listed.
Biographical entries in this book typically include dates of birth and death to place the artist in the correct era in which he or she worked. A death date also indicates, obviously, when the artist stopped work — any piece issued after this is a restrike or reissue. Other data includes artists’ education, art training, awards, art style and memberships in numismatic and art organizations. This is supplemented with facts about the pieces created by the artist.
While most entries are a paragraph or so in length, some notable artists are covered more extensively. The biographical entry for Brenner, creator of the 1909 Lincoln cent plus hundreds of medals, fills 8.5 pages.