Don Everhart, the United States Mint’s senior sculptor-engraver, retired from his position in Philadelphia last week. This week I’m exploring some of my favorite Everhart medal and coin designs and engravings. On Tuesday I showed the 2006 State quarter for Nevada; on Wednesday, the 2009 Women Airforce Service Pilots medal; on Thursday, the Statue of Liberty reverse of the Presidential dollar series. Today: two First Ladies in gold.
The Dolley Madison First Spouse Gold Coin, 2007
For my book American Gold and Silver: U.S. Mint Collector and Investor Coins and Medals, Bicentennial to Date, I studied every coin of the Mint’s First Spouse gold bullion series. These were coins struck in 24-karat (.9999 fine) gold, weighing one-half ounce each. They honor the nation’s First Ladies as a companion series to the Presidential dollars minted from 2007 to 2016. Each features a portrait on the obverse, and on the reverse a unique design symbolic of the First Lady’s life and work. (In instances where a president held office unmarried or widowed, the coin bears “an obverse image emblematic of Liberty as depicted on a circulating coin of that era and a reverse image emblematic of themes of that president’s life”).
Two coins stand out as examples of Don Everhart’s work in this particular program: the 2007 Dolley Madison, for which he designed the obverse and sculpted the reverse; and the 2013 Ellen Wilson reverse.
In American Gold and Silver, I described the Dolley Madison coin:
The fourth and final First Spouse coin of 2007 returned to real-life portraiture with a gently smiling visage of Dolley Madison on the obverse, and an artful full-body standing portrait on the reverse. The latter captures the First Lady in the midst of saving the executive mansion’s Cabinet papers and the famous Gilbert Stuart painting of George Washington from seizure by advancing British troops in August 1814. Collectors remarked on the attractiveness of the reverse tableau.
As the First Spouse series and other U.S. Mint programs continued, the Citizens Coinage Advisory Committee increasingly pushed for symbolic rather than pictorial coinage designs. The idea was to move away from “pictures or photographs on coins” and into the realm of artistic allegory. Even though Joel Iskowitz’s reverse design is in the “picture on a coin” category, it succeeds not least of all because of the rich, wonderful texture and sculptural depth imparted in Don Everhart’s engraving. Dolley Madison’s hair, her clothing, the painting of George Washington—Everhart captured every detail. The nuances are particularly visible in the Uncirculated version of the coin.
For the 2013 Ellen Wilson coin, I wrote the following in American Gold and Silver (excerpted):
Ellen Louise Axson was born in Savannah, Georgia, to a Presbyterian pastor and his wife, a teacher. Both of her grandfathers also were Presbyterian ministers. In her infancy she was moved from city to city because of the dangers of living in the Southern battle zone during the Civil War. Her mother died shortly before Ellen’s 23rd birthday, and a young Atlanta lawyer named Thomas Woodrow Wilson (the son of one of her father’s longtime friends) noticed her at the funeral service. They became engaged while she cared for her ailing father and Woodrow continued his postgraduate studies at Johns Hopkins University. They would marry in 1885 and then move to Pennsylvania after he was offered a teaching position at Bryn Mawr College. Ellen assisted her husband in his academic research while raising their three daughters. (For their first two children, Ellen returned to her native Georgia to give birth, lightheartedly insisting that they wouldn’t be born Yankees.)
In 1890 the family entered a new stage in Princeton, New Jersey, as Woodrow began a distinguished professorship and in 1902 was promoted to president of Princeton University. Ellen was active in the academic social scene, formed a local women’s organization, restored the university president’s mansion, and entertained luminaries such as businessman J.P. Morgan, former U.S. president Grover Cleveland, writer Mark Twain, and educator Booker T. Washington. [excerpt continued below]
Woodrow Wilson transitioned from academe into public service, ultimately winning the U.S. presidency in the election of 1912. As First Lady, Ellen’s style was simple but welcoming, and she maintained a rigorous schedule of entertaining. The Wilsons did not hold an inaugural ball (an unnecessary and wasteful expense, she felt), but two of their daughters would later be married in the White House. Ellen pursued her longtime hobbies of sketching and painting. She set up a studio on the executive mansion’s third floor and gave many of her creations to charitable organizations. She personally and publically supported the improvement of housing for poor Washingtonians, many of them black, in the capital city’s slums. Closer to the presidential home, Ellen created the first White House Rose Garden—an accomplishment remembered on the reverse of her First Spouse gold coin. Designed and sculpted in fine detail by Don Everhart, the reverse shows a bloom of roses in the foreground with the presidential mansion in the back. The portrait of Ellen Wilson, envisioned by AIP artist Frank Morris and sculpted by Charles Vickers, is stately, dignified, and somewhat homespun. Ellen was not extravagant; as First Lady she spent less than $1,000 per year on clothing. “I am naturally the most unambitious of women and life in the White House has no attractions for me,” she said. She was only 54 years old when she died of kidney disease, not halfway through her husband’s first term as president—the third First Lady to die in the White House, after Letitia Tyler (1842) and Caroline Harrison (1892).
As with the 2007 Dolley Madison gold coin, the reverse of the 2013 Ellen Wilson showcases Don Everhart’s gift for creating exquisitely fine detail on a small canvas. Remember that these coins are only 26.5 mm in diameter—not much bigger than a quarter dollar!