?Mountains, monuments and money: Two mountains and a coin
Mountains and money. Those are the canvases some artists have worked with since the early 1900s when the U.S. Mint started asking non-mint engravers to design some of the nation’s coins.
For the next five weeks I’m going to look at sculptors who were equally at home with monumental and minuscule commissions — with mountains, monuments and money.
Part 1: Two mountains and a coin
Gutzon Borglum, who sculpted one of the nation’s largest pieces of art — Mount Rushmore — also designed the Stone Mountain commemorative half dollar.
Between 1927 and his death in 1941, Borglum directed some 400 workers as they blasted 60-foot tall portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln from the granite face of Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The monument did not appear on a United States coin until 1991 when small versions of it were placed on half dollars, silver dollars and $5 gold pieces marking the memorial’s 50th anniversary.
In this century, the monument has appeared on two quarter dollars — the 2004 South Dakota State quarter and the same state’s 2013 America the Beautiful coin.
The 2004 coin is a crowded affair, showing the monument beneath a bird and between wheat ears. Designer John Mercanti didn’t have the space to give dimension to the portraits, rendering them more as caricatures than faithful reproductions.
Joseph Menna’s 2013 America the Beautiful quarter dollar features a bold design showing a worker beneath Jefferson’s eye.
While Mount Rushmore is Borglum’s masterwork, numismatists know him better as the designer of the Stone Mountain half dollar. The coin shows Confederate generals Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee on the obverse and an eagle on the reverse.
Before Mount Rushmore, Borglum was hired to sculpt a massive memorial to the Confederacy on Stone Mountain, Georgia. He planned to blast a high-relief frieze of mounted figures of Lee, Jackson and Confederate President Jefferson Davis leading troops.
Borglum only got as far as Lee’s head before he was fired. The Stone Mountain coin, curiously, may have played a part in his firing. “Some observers felt that he was spending so much time on the coin models that the stone sculpting was not being properly supervised,” Q. David Bowers wrote in Commemorative Coins of the United States: A Complete Encyclopedia.
After Borglum was fired, his portrait of Lee was blasted off the face of the mountain and Augustus H. Lukeman took over — until the money ran out in 1928. Work began again in 1963 and was completed in 1970. The actual Stone Mountain differs markedly from Borglum’s coin.
James Earle Fraser, designer of the iconic Indian Head five-cent piece, sat on the Commission of Fine Arts that approved the design. Fraser found fault with much of Borglum’s design and only grudgingly approved it.
Next: A nickel and the Supreme Court