Skip to content

Portraits and Portraiture

Portraits and Portraiture.  The image of a human being showing enough characteristics – usually the face – to identify that person, and the study of these images on coins and medals in history. If the most important function of coins is to serve as a medium of exchange, the second most important aspect of coins and medals is their contribution to portraiture. We can observe portraits made centuries ago (and certainly before photography existed to record their exact images) to reveal images of human beings of the past.

These likenesses reveal the features of people of history, some obscure, some most prominent. Statues and paintings were created as image-recorders of the past, but not one Greek portrait painting has survived and most early statues are disfigured or have crumbled in time. Coins and medals have a greater capacity for survival, over longer time, than does any other medium of recording the personal image!

We learn from a coin struck during the time of Cleopatra that she was not the raving beauty of an Elizabeth Taylor, or from a contemporary medal we observe the rugged sea-hardened features, the elations and disappointments in the face of Columbus. Portraiture adds personality to a name in a history book. This does, however, place a tremendous burden on the artist to document that personality, to preserve the nature – to record the lifelike characteristics – of that person. A portrait on a coin or medal preserves a permanent image frozen for centuries.

With such immortality one would expect that kings and queens, while they were alive, would exert such an influence on the artists that only flattering portraits would be created. Why then, do we have such coins and medals bearing ugly portraits? If his monetary portrait is a flattering image of Peter the Hogmouth, what then did he really look like?  Or did they venerate ugliness in his generation?

Coin and medal portraits are important, not only for their historical study, but also for their iconography. They preserve, perhaps like no other media, what the person really looked like in a miniature portrait in metal. Museums preserve coins and medals for their miniature portraiture, the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, for example, preserves bas-relief medallic portraits alongside paintings, statues, photographs and other pictorial media.

Portrait techniques.  Techniques, both of engraving and as a style of art, have a considerable bearing on coin and medal portraiture. Realism, it appears, has been dominant throughout history. Artists have attempted to employ any method possible to achieve more realistic portraits. Portrait technicians have used life masks, death masks, drawing frames and the cameograph of the 20th century. All these have proved futile for preparing a portrait.

What is far more important is to filter the features of the person through the mind and creative expression of the artist. Not only must the artist make his portrait a close physical resemblance of the person, but he must also give it life. He must vivify his portrait even if his subject is no longer alive!

Portrait bias.  There is a bias, however, evidenced in coins and medals as in all forms of art, perhaps, that the artist may introduce subtleties of his own likeness in his portraits. Considered inevitable, it is visible in the work of all sculptors, particularly in portraits of cross cultures.

Medals of the Apollo astronauts who walked on the moon were created by artists all over the world. Gyokuho Onodera created a three-portrait medal struck by the Toyko Mint. The American astronauts have oriental facial characteristics!

General portrait characteristics.  Portraits are the most difficult of any bas-relief form to create. The artist must capture the "essence" or personality of the person. An engraver must create this lifelike representation by carving in steel (or the modeler in clay or plaster). He must decide the position of the head or the bust and how best to present it; then he must prepare the image that reflects that person in a most reliable way.

Side-view profiles are far more popular in coin and medal portraiture because of the beneficial way a profile fits the contours of a circle. Perhaps as few as fifteen percent of all portraits use a full face or a head turned slightly, so popular is the other 85 percent of all coins and medals with portrait in profile. Right facing profiles are about thirty percent more popular than left facing (the symbolism or meaning of facing right is looking ahead, progressing forward in western culture, facing left is looking backwards, ideal, say, for a historian).

Early coin portraiture.  Engraved portraits and painted portraits evolved in Greece about the same time (painting perhaps 100 years before the first human form appeared on a coin or engraved gems in 360 bc). Portraiture on Greek coins rose to spectacular heights due to the Greek aptitude for art. Portraits have appeared on coins (and later medals) to document individual representations ever since.

Portraits on Roman coins fell in artistic quality, but increased in the number of

persons entitled to appear on coins. Thus we can observe wives and family members of

Roman leaders, as well as Caesars and senators. Portraiture deteriorated further after the decline of Rome.

Coins bore only the crudest linear detail, a cartoon of the portrayed ruler, as only kings' portraits appear during the Middle Ages. Hammered coins did less to improve numismatic art and coin portraiture declined even more if that was possible. During this 700-year period, portraits appeared of these obscure leaders, but the stick-face portraits on coins reveal little of their proprietor's personality.

Hand engraved portraits.  Greek and Roman portraits were engraved entirely by hand. Their closeness to engraved gems is obvious in that coin dies were engraved intaglio (negative) as gems were engraved cameo (positive) in approximately the same size. Cameos were sometimes cut in shell, softer than the iron of coin dies. If the engraver had the talent to do one, he could easily do the other. But the coin engraver always had to work in steel to cut a portrait about the size of a fingernail.

In the middle ages portraits (if you could call them that) were made by punches. Lines and arcs and dots were combined to form an outline form of a face in a die. Not much of a chance to express any personality in these punchmarks.

It wasn't until the coin or medal could be struck in a press (replacing hammer

coinage in the 16th century) that hand engraving became employed once again, to create more realistic portraits. Greek coin portraiture served as models as engravers in the 1500s created more realistic portraits. As difficult as it was to hand engrave a likeness of a person, some magnificent portraits emerged thereafter.

New technologies influence coin and medal portraiture. Two inventions

dramatically influenced coin and medal portraiture: First was the development of the

die-engraving pantograph (following its invention in 1766). The second was the development of photography (in the 1830s) with the first portrait made in 1839.

The die-engraving pantograph allowed medallists to create a bas-relief model – often a portrait – (in soft clay or easy-to-model plaster) in a size larger than what

was needed in a die.

Cast this design into hard metal, then reduce it on a pantograph which cuts a die (or a reduction punch) to the size required. What took days of tedious labor engraving in tiny bites, smoothing the surface, and taking constant proof impressions of this hand engraved die to check the state of that die, was replaced by the artist making an easy model, then rendering this in one or more correct size dies, each in a matter of hours.

Coin and medal engraving, once the exclusive work of diesinking hand engravers, passed to sculptors, who could model designs and portraits with far greater ease oversize and in more realistic nature. Often mints would commission sculptors just to produce more lifelike portraits that mint engravers could employ, in turn, to make dies of an attractive design.

The United States Mint commissioned sculptors like Salatheil Ellis in 1848 and Ferdinand Pettrich as early as 1842 to prepare portraits (Ellis did over a dozen including Abraham Lincoln, Milliard Fillmore and James Buchanan). Their bas-relief portrait would be rendered into a cast pattern (or electroformed shell) that would be reduced on the pantograph and a reduction punch made. Mint engravers, then, would hub the reduction punch in a die block and add the lettering afterwards with letter and figure punches.

The Royal Mint in England commissioned William Wyon to do portraits for important coins and medals. His medallic portrait of Queen Victoria in 1838 was so appealing (and notably realistic!) that the image was used on medals for several purposes. This medallic portrait was even used as the model for the Penny Black stamp of 1840 (drawn by Henry Corbould). It remained on British stamps until the queen's death in 1901. Medals often become a logo or trademark, the use of this medallic portrait is a classic example!

Photography's influence.  Photography allowed artists to model from photographic prints rather than require the person to sit for a portrait where the artist sketches the sitter's features. Ideally an artist would prefer a profile photograph or two and prints of the head and face from several angles. Sculptor-medallist Jo Davidson preferred motion picture film to learn the likeness of the face and the traits of the person in action. He often commissioned film to be made especially for him to study when he worked on a portrait.

So important were the early photographs that in 1850 the U.S. Mint gave credit to

the photographers! The Meade Brothers produced a Daguerreotype which engraver Charles Cushing Wright used to model the portrait on the Daniel Webster Medal (PE-37). Wright signed the medal on the obverse and placed MEADE BROS. DAG. on the reverse.

Portraits painted in miniature – and engraved prints – rapidly became superseded

by photography. Thus this new visual technique rapidly enhanced coin and medal portraiture.

Self portraits.  Medallic art is an ideal medium for artists to preserve their own portrait and many have. Forrer illustrated many of these in his lengthy work on medallic artists’ biographies. Three were included in the 1910 International Exhibition of Medallic Art at American Numismatic Society: Americans Victor David Brenner, Roger Nobel Burnham and German Hans Frei. Brenner's self portrait was reissued by Presidential Art Medals on the centennial of the artist's birth in 1971 (along with Brenner's famed Lincoln portrait).

Every artist should be encouraged to do a self portrait, preferably well into the artist’s career when he is totally competent in his chosen medium. Because of the permanency of medallic art, this is particularly true for the medallic artist. One artist's organization – American Academy of Arts and Letters – makes this a requirement of admission, and this can be in any form, any medium. Bas-relief portraits are highly accepted.

Cataloging portraits.  Not only must the cataloger of a coin or medal identify the

portrait – who was it? – but also, if possible, the artist. To describe the portrait the cataloger must know what is "normal" and if the portrait is different in any way.

A normal portrait is in linear perspective. If a different perspective is employed by the artist, this must be mentioned by the cataloger. An FAO medal by Chester Martin, then an engraver at the U.S. Mint, was a view from above. The position of the head should be noted, full face, or how far turned, and to which side.

The normal portrait has no facial hair, no headgear, the skin is smooth texture. Beards, therefore, must be noted in a catalog description, so should the kind of hat or headgear, if present, adornments on the head (as crowns or wreaths) if present, the fact the skin has texture if this technique was used by the artist. Clothing should be identified, or is the figure nude?

The place where the body ends, particularly for a bust, is called the truncation. It can be erased or couped. Every pictorial aspect of the portrait must be noted by the serious cataloger. (See chart.)


                     Describing a Portrait                


 TERMS:  head, bust, bearded, full face, profile, full    

     length, three quarter, unknown portrait.             

 POSITION: facing, turned (degree as 1/3, half or 2/3),   

     gardant, regardant.                                  

 ADORNMENTS: diadem (crown), laureate (wreath), headgear  

     (identify type of hat).                              

 HAIR STYLE: coffiture perfect, windblown or unkempt.     

 CLOTHING: clothed, nude, folds, flowing, uniform.                        

 ART STYLE:  realistic, formal, representational, classic,

     action pose, character, cartoon, silhouette.         

 DUAL PORTRAITS: conjoined, accolated, jugate, bijugate,  

     tete-a-tete, vis-a-vis.                              

 HOW BODY ENDS:  truncated, erased, couped.               

 TEXTURE: (usually smooth), textured, style rude (rough   



O6 {1911} ANS                   

R1 {1912} Hill                 

R2 {1921-2} Farquhar           

R3 {1928} Hill                 

N2 {1958} Babelon.             

R4 {1961} Schwarzenburg

R5 {1963} Brophy

R6 {1963} Friedenberg

R7 {1964} Gelder

R8 {1966} Pope-Hennessy

excerpted with permission from

An Encyclopedia of Coin and Medal Technology

For Artists, Makers, Collectors and Curators


Roger W. Burdette, Editor

NNP is 100% non-profit and independent // Your feedback is essential and welcome. // Your feedback is essential and welcome.