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Before the United States produced the Hudson River School or paintings of the American Frontier, the new country proved its artistic might on banknotes. Images of Value: The Artwork Behind U.S. Security Engraving, 1830s–1980s at the Grolier Club chronicles 150 years of this history, with over 250 paintings, drawings, etchings, banknotes, and stock certificates, along with currency from 15 countries. Mark D. Tomasko, who collected most of the works on view, notes in an introduction that security engraving “was one of the first arts in which the United States became a world leader.”
Tomasko explained to Hyperallergic that his interest in security engraving spawned from collecting coins, which he started doing at the age of 10. “Within four or five years, I became interested in banknotes.” At the time, “three different kinds of paper money were circulating”: green-seal federal reserve notes that survive today, red-seal US notes, and blue-seal silver certificates. “Still later, when my grandmother gave me some stock certificates of the Marmon Motor Car Company [1920s–30s], I discovered securities, as they were the largest format for banknote engraving. By the late 1960s I was interested in the engraving on the banknotes and securities — who did it, how was it done, and where the artwork came from.”
There were several factors that contributed to the success of this financial fine art in the US, including the quality of engraving firms in Philadelphia and New York as well as a system that allowed nearly all American banks to issue their own notes. And the more expertly executed the security engraving, or “vignette,” the harder to counterfeit the note or bond. The exhibition at the Grolier Club begins with early 19th-century pastoral scenes, including work by Asher B. Durand, who worked in banknote art before concentrating on landscape paintings, and progresses up to the 1960s–80s, when artists like Robert Lavin were modernizing allegorical figures to represent new technology and industry.
Images of Value is arranged so that almost every banknote is accompanied by its source artwork and engraving; thus visitors unfamiliar with the process (probably the majority of them, although this is the city of Wall Street) can appreciate the evolution of an artwork as it was transferred to currency. For instance, “fancy heads” representing allegorical women that were popular as engravings proved difficult to copy. (Some of these women were named — Martha Washington appeared on US Silver Certificates from 1886 to the early 1900s, the first historical woman to be immortalized on American federal money — but most were anonymous.) In the early 19th century, the art had to be created at miniature size for the engraver to trace; later, photography allowed it to be reduced to scale. The sources of the visuals could be eccentric. While banks often commissioned original artwork, others drew from books, lithographs, and, by the late 19th century, photographs, with the progression of the print industry promoting the diversity of vignettes.
For example, 1925 coupon-size bonds from the Cuyamel Fruit Co. feature the face of Evelyn Nesbit, lifted from a printed photograph. Although she’s unnamed on the engraving, it was only a couple of decades after the 1906 murder of Stanford White, who was shot in the head by her husband, Harry Kendall Thaw, for their past involvement (at the age of 16, Nesbit may in fact have been raped by the famed architect). Meanwhile, the head of a cow in Edwin Landseer’s “Wild Cattle of Chillingham” was likely borrowed from a book illustration. The wide-eyed English animal became a Texas longhorn when it was altered for an 1889 Honduran banknote, then an 1893 Spanish bull-fight ticket and a 1900 railway stock certificate.
The exhibition throws a bit of shade at modernism by stating that the “Salon art of the late nineteenth century had given way to new art movements not suitable for vignettes.” Alas, no “Nude Descending a Staircase”–adorned Fruit bonds were to be. Instead, artists like muralist Alonzo E. Foringer contributed a draped figure sitting on a generator for a Kansas City Light & Power company gold bond, or holding a telephone for the Stromberg-Carlson telephone-equipment suppliers.
This adoption of contemporary references in allegorical art continued through the 20th century. A 1975 Westinghouse Electric Corporation debenture was decorated with a rare nude male figure, who lifts an atomic symbol before an array of electronic instruments on a rocky vista. While security art for currency and other banknotes has become more sophisticated over the years — the current US $100 bill has color-shifting ink, a security ribbon, and even microprinting alongside its watermark of Benjamin Franklin’s portrait — the originality and execution of the work remains an integral part of counterfeit protection.
Images of Value: The Artwork Behind U.S. Security Engraving, 1830s–1980s continues at the Grolier Club (47 E 60th Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through April 29.