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Art Movements

Art Movements.  Artistic styles having common methods of expression or presentation and employed by a number of artists. Determining an art movement depends on recognizing a style used by more than one artist in the treatment of their subjects; for coin and medal design it is the use of similar shapes, texture and artistic mannerisms. Naming these styles aids the art community in writing and speaking of each art style as its own entity. The artists who create in similar style are often close in time or location (as one artist may imitate another whose style he admires). When close in time it is sometimes called a “period” of a movement.

            Art movements have changed with time. Early art stressed religious themes in fixed style. The Renaissance served as a rebirth with freer expression. In later years new movements arose as artists experimented more, giving birth to those art movements listed here (and many others). Artists sometimes trained together giving rise to a collective work of a school of art. In other forms of art, as painting and sculpture, these styles are often called “ism” as impressionism.

            Some typical art movements – classical, renaissance, abstract, modern – indeed do apply to medallic art; many others do not, as constructivism, cubism, dadaism, minimalism, pop art, surrealism for example. The requirements of coins and medals, predominately that being reproduced in metal of monochromatic color, prohibit some art movements in medallic design. Thus the art movements of painting, where color is so dominate, do not transfer to medallic art, the art movements of sculpture, however, are more inviting. (Color in medallic art can be implied by texture; there is a set scheme of line direction that indicates color. See heraldry.)

            In modern times strict art movements have somewhat disappeared, replaced by contemporary art, where individualism and diversity prevail. Thus coin and medal artists develop their own personal style of medallic design (and no other artist as yet has imitated their style).  See style and technique.

            Native American Art Movements.  “Federal Style” should be mentioned (see list) since it was a truly American creation. The first coins struck at the early U.S. Mint were created in a somewhat neoclassic style. However, the use of the head of Liberty, the stylized eagle and stars as subsidiary devices – even though influenced by French coin designs – were uniquely American in presentation.

            Lesser known, the Philadelphia School of Art occurred in the second half of the 19th century. It was influenced by the Federal Style but without subsidiary devices. It was usually of a single obverse device, and otherwise pseudoclassic. Obviously, it flourished among Philadelphia coin and medal artists, both inside and outside the U.S. Mint, but the work of all private medal makers in Philadelphia following the Civil War was of this stark, stiff style devoid of decoration and embellishment.

            Medallic objects can be traced to the eight productions by six American artists in 1965. Perhaps this can be said to be the first modern art in American art medals. American may have created the first medallic objects, but the French developed this new media to a fine art in its own right.


A31 {1971} Vermeule.


Word List #2

Styles of Art Found On Art Medals, Coins


Abstract – Characterized by nongeometric forms, abstract could be said to be the opposite of classical traditionalism. Inspired by New York City painters after World War II whose work is now called “abstract expressionism.” In medallic art abstract is expressed only in shapes and textures. It is a form of modern art or free style (see below). Often abstract designs are found on medallic objects.

Art Deco – Designs dominated by straight lines and slender forms. Active during 1920s and 1930s.

Art Nouveau – Sensuous, sinuous, asymmetrical flowing forms. First appeared in late 19th century, but popular in mid-20th century American medal design.


Beaux Arts – Ornamental designs of classical beauty influenced by French art. Made of oversize models for technical perfection and pantographically reduced, in America1880s-1930.


This is an extreme example of Classical design in a modern medal by Robert I. Aitken for its device from ancient coins. Note the dots in an arc just inside the rim. This inspired the use of dentiles in 19th century coin designs. 

Classical Design with emphasis on harmony, proportion, balance, and simplicity. It places great importance on beauty. First employed by artists in Greek and Roman times, and certainly evident in their coin designs. Thus it is the oldest of all formal art movements. When it was revived in Europe in late 18th and early 19th centuries it was called neoclassical. When it is copied in modern times, perhaps with less emphasis on beauty, it is called pseudoclassical.

Federal Style – An American style developed in the early coins of the Republic, the female form of Liberty, the stylized eagle, and the use of stars as subsidiary devices. Although influenced by French coin designs, this is the American coin style of U.S. Mint engravers Robert Scot, William Kneass and Christian Gobrecht. In use at the U.S Mint 1792-1920. Numismatic author Cornelius Vermeule was the first to use this term in his writings on numismatic art.

Figurative – Human and animal figures are presented in realistic style. Evident since classical time and influence and expressed in similar classical styles of realism and proportion. Nature scenes can be classed as naturalism, all of which falls within realism.


Impressionism – An established painting movement of the late 19th century France, where the effect of light and color influenced the visual impression. Its effect in numismatic design is minimal.

Modern Art or Free Style– While casting aside classical traditionalism, modern art stresses shapes and texture in medallic format without completely abandoning typical medallic styles. A figure may be expressed though it may be distorted or viewed from a different perspective. The devices may be expressed in detail but presented in such a way that will shock, astonish or befuddle the viewer. Modern art embraces abstract design in both struck and cast items. First appeared in America in 1965 and popular ever since. Most all medallic objects are classed as modern art.

Naturalism – Realistic scenes of nature, animals and man. It combines the style of figurative but adds all nature as a subject. The scenes are completely objective, without distortion or interpretation. Closely related to realism.

Neoclassic – A return to classical design principles of elegant, balanced works of simple design and perfect proportion. This occurred in Europe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Examples of neoclassic medallists are David and Canova in Europe and St-Gaudens in America.

Philadelphia style Extremely simple device carved alone in a die or hub with lettering added by punches afterwards. Influenced by engravers at the U,S, Mint in Philadelphia and copied by private engravers working nearby, 1865-1880s.


Pointillism  – A medallic design formed with dots, the similarity to dabs of color in painting. Developed by painters Georges Seurat and Paul Signac in the 1880s.

Provisional Simple design of amateur status without regard to technical restrictions, often struck on blanks of varying quality. Often early in a country’s history without access to adequate minting tooling or talent. In America 1862-1792.


Pseudoclassicism – In imitation of classical form. Modern rendition of a numismatic design by copying classical style of proportion, harmony, balance and simplicity.

Realism – Designs showing life as it really is, without idealization. Developed by French artists in the 19th century who rejected idealized academic styles in favor of everyday subjects shown in almost photo-like exactness. When figures are shown in realistic style this is figurative. When carried to extreme it is superrealism. Realism is most used by modern coin and medal designers.

Representationalism – Expressing an object or view in that is imagined in the mind of the item’s creator, not necessarily an actual object expressed in realistic form. A building can be shown in detail that is not like the real form at all, as perhaps from the last person in line whose exact description is passed down the line.  See representative view.

Renaissance – This movement of scientific perspective is named for the historical period in Europe circa 1400-1600. The term means “rebirth” in French, and midway through time the medal was reborn in Italy by Pisanello establishing the art medal as an art form. The painted and sculpture works of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Raphael exemplify the balance and harmony of this art movement and the period circa 1495-1520 can be termed  High Renaissance.


Symbolism – The images on coins and medals must represent the idea, subject or theme – animate or inanimate – in which the subject matter is suggested rather than directly pictured, typical of a symbol. Because of their small size all numismatic items employ symbolism and are thusly symbolic. As such they may be stylized or decorative but must be evocative of the theme. This symbolic style was developed in medallic art in France in the 1880s and occurred simultaneously with the development of the oversize modeled pattern – reproduced by the pantograph – and the patinated medallic surface.  See symbols and symbolism.

Traditional – Realistic designs of linear perspective with somewhat detailed modelling. In America 1930 to present.

References:                                                                                                                                  CLASS 03.2  

A49     {2015} Johnson, p 3-4.       


0374-(007 )01

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

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