Credited as the first designer of US coin, Joseph Wright, was born July 16, 1756 in Bordentown, New Jersey and lived until September 13, 1793. His career for most of his life was as a portrait painter and Wright was George Washington’s first choice to become the first Chief Engraver of the US Mint, but unfortunately, he died before he could officially take the position.
There is some controversy about the first US coins ever made and who designed them. Most people believe that Wright was the designer of the original Liberty Cap Large Cent and Liberty Cap Half Cent (head facing left variety), but many others believe that Henry Voigt was the designer. Although most numismatists and historians officially give Wright the credit for designing this coin.
It is thought that perhaps Wright gained his artistic abilities from his Mother, Patience Wright, who is often regarded as America’s first sculptor. Patience Lovell was born in Oyster Bay, New York, into a Quaker farm family. The family moved to Bordentown, New Jersey when Patience was four years old. At age 16 she left the family home and moved to Philadelphia, where in 1748 she married Joseph Wright, a barrel maker who was many years her senior. She often amused herself and her children by molding faces out of putty, bread dough, and wax.
When Wright’s husband died in 1769, she was pregnant with a fourth child and needed a way to support the family. Working with her sister Rachel Wells, who by then was also a widow, she turned her sculpting hobby into a full-time occupation. The sisters set up a business molding portraits in tinted wax, a popular art form in colonial America, and charged admission to see them. By 1770 they had become successful enough to open a waxworks house in New York City and mount tours of their work to Philadelphia and Charleston.
Wright’s portraits were life-sized figures or busts with real clothing and glass eyes. They were modeled from life and were considered to be very lifelike. They were often placed in tableaux, illustrating the activities the portrayed individual might have undertaken in life.
After many of her sculptures were destroyed in a fire in June 1771, Wright relocated to London, England. Through a relationship with Jane Mecom, sister of Benjamin Franklin, she made her entry into London society. Wright settled in the West End and set up a popular waxworks show of historical tableaux and celebrity wax figures. She was honored with an invitation to model King George III, and would go on to sculpt other members of British royalty and nobility.
Patience Wright became known in London society for her rustic American manners, which were a source of both fascination and scandal. She wore wooden shoes, kissed members of both sexes and all classes in greeting, and in general did not follow the contemporary rules for someone of her class or gender. One rumor held that she had even called the king and queen by their first names, in an outrageous breach of conduct. Her reputation for unruliness led to the nickname “The Promethean Modeler”, and she gained a level of celebrity in 18th-century London. Wright famously offended Abigail Adams with her over-familiarity and lack of modesty about her skills. Adams wrote a disparaging letter home describing their encounter, describing her as “the queen of sluts.”
Wright’s technique for sculpting wax contributed to this public conception of her
character. She used body heat to keep the wax at a temperature where she could shape it, molding it under her apron in a suggestive manner, which scandalized viewers and was even parodied in newspaper cartoons. The medium itself was a form of “low art” and considered unrefined when compared to sculpture in bronze or stone.
Wright is rumored to have worked as a spy during the American Revolution, sending information back to the colonies inside her wax figures. Wright eventually fell from royal favor as a result of her open support for the colonial cause, especially after she reportedly scolded the king and queen after the battles of Lexington and Concord. She was an outspoken patriot, and started a fund to support American prisoners of war held in Britain. A group of pro-American activists, including Lord George Gordon, Benjamin West, and Anthony Pasquin, would meet at her London workshop to discuss their cause.
The fragility of her medium means that few of Wright’s works survive today. A full-length figure of William Pitt, produced after the Earl’s death, still stands in Westminster Abbey Museum. A bas-relief profile of Admiral Richard Howe in the collection of the Newark Museum is attributed to her.
In 1775, Joseph Wright joined his mother in England and became the first American-born student to matriculate in the Royal Academy of Arts in London, where he studied for 6 years. He won a silver medal for “the best model of an Academy figure” in December 1778. In 1780, he caused a scandal at the Royal Academy by exhibiting a portrait of his mother sculpting a wax head of King Charles II, while busts of King George III and Queen Charlotte looked on.
In 1781, Wright and his mother traveled to Paris. While there, he painted several portraits of Benjamin Franklin. After 7 years in Europe, Wright returned to America in 1782, where he became the first of just two artists to make a plaster mold of George Washington. Thomas Jefferson judged Wright’s portrait of Washington very highly. “I have no hesitation in pronouncing Wright’s drawing to be a better likeness of the General than Peale’s,” he wrote in 1795.
Early in his Presidency, Washington and Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, diligently sought after talented European engravers to design the first United States coins. However, they failed in this endeavor and ultimately decided that Wright would become the unofficial Engraver at the nascent Philadelphia Mint in the second half of 1792. In August, 1793, Joseph was designated as the Mint’s “First Draughtsman & Diesinker.”
On December 5, 1789, Wright married Sarah Vandervoordt in Philadelphia. They had three children, Sarah, Joseph, and Harriet. Wright and his wife both died, most likely as a result of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793. Despite his early passing, Joseph Wright, has forever made an impact on American history as the first Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint.