Checking into Facebook this morning, I noticed two friends sharing this post:
I knew nothing about this impressive artist nor the controversy. And there is controversy. It’s not simply a matter of some “little known black history fact”, but perhaps a politically motivated attempt to revise it and keep alive the anger of black Americans toward their country, for crimes actual and crimes fabricated. The anger here might be one of fabrication/propaganda.
Selma Burke, herself, might be sincere in her belief that she was robbed; and her experiences of racial prejudice may have also (mis)led her into the belief that her work was “plagiarized” due to her being black.
However, I believe Mr. Smith Guesser may be correct in his assessment on this message board when he writes:
So, what the heck is going on?
Without mincing words, it is my opinion that many of the claims that Sinnock copied Burke’s work is racially and politically motivated (excluding Breen’s). The story that a white man working for the government stole from and uncredited an African-American female artist is an attractive anecdote for those looking to push their own agenda.
Having read through Guesser’s research, I am compelled to believe his assessment stands on solid footing.
For those of you who don’t know the connection between the Roosevelt dime and artist Selma Burke, I’ll briefly sum it up:
Among the controversies surrounding the Roosevelt dime, there has been long-standing allegation that engraver John R. Sinnock copied or borrowed the Roosevelt profile from a bronze bas relief of FDR created by sculptress Selma H. Burke for the dime’s obverse. Partially seen below, Burke’s bas relief was sculpted in 1944 and and unveiled in September 1945 at the Recorder of Deeds Building in Washington, D.C., where it still hangs today.
The exact origin of this claim is currently unknown to this writer. But whether or not it was Burke who first made the accusation, it is clear that she was very unhappy with Sinnock and felt that she deserved the credit for the design. In a special tribute to the sculptress presented to the 103rd Congress in 1994, writer Steven Litt reported:
Selma Burke, 93, has earned more honors in her long career than many other 20th-century American artists. She first garnered attention as a sculptor in the Harlem Renaissance, the burst of art, music and literature by blacks in New York during the 1920s and ’30s. She later studied in Europe, founded an art school in New York and an art center in Pittsburgh, and was awarded nearly a dozen honorary degrees.
But one thing eludes her. It is credit for the portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt that appears on the dime, which was issued by the U.S. Mint in 1946.
The dime bears the tiny initials “JS,” which stand for John Sinnock, the former mint chief engraver who, according to Burke, copied a bronze portrait plaque of Roosevelt created by Burke in 1944 for the Recorder of Deeds Office in Washington, D.C.
“I’m so mad at that man,” she says of Sinnock.
Officials at the mint say their records show Sinnock deserves full credit for the Roosevelt dime. But Burke isn’t convinced. She says that because she is black, she will never get the recognition she feels she deserves.
“This has happened to so many black people,” she says. “I have never stopped fighting this man and have never had anyone who cared enough to give me the credit.”
Burke and some scholars believe that Sinnock used her sketches and plaques to design the profile of Roosevelt that appears on the dime.
But Brenda Gatling, public information officer for the mint, says “both Ms. Burke and Sinnock did live sittings with the president. Historical records do not bear out Ms. Burke’s statements that he copied her design. Those who could have provided eyewitness accounts have long passed on.”
But Burke isn’t discouraged. “Everybody knows I did it,” she says.
In general, Burke’s image of Roosevelt is quite similar to the one found on the dime. Both are left-facing profiles that have the same angle of cut on the neck. However, this is where the similarities end.
A close look at both images reveal many subtle differences. Compare the two designs for yourself:
Here are just a few differences that I’ve noticed between Sinnock’s Roosevelt profile and Burke’s:
- Burke’s bas relief seems to be, in general, proportionately different than the one found on the dime.
- Burke’s profile appears to portray a younger looking Roosevelt than is on the dime.
- Burke’s image does not show Roosevelt directly from the side as seen on the dime. Burke’s bas relief shows a small bit of the right side of Roosevelt’s face, the most obvious being the right eyebrow.
- Roosevelt’s left eyebrow on Burke’s bas relief is also “bushier” and more pronounced.
- The dime shows wrinkles radiating outward from the outer corner of Roosevelt’s eye (crow’s feet) while there are none on the Burke relief.
- The forelock of Roosevelt hair is a bit rounder on the dime and extends forward from the hairline, whereas Burke’s design has the hair “slicked back”.
- The part in Roosevelt’s hair is also different between the two images and Burke’s design shows Roosevelt with a much higher hairline. There are also clear differences in the way the hair falls on Roosevelt’s head.
- The back of the neck in Burke’s design is much longer, and generally shows Roosevelt’s neck as thinner.
- The ear lobe on Burke’s bas relief is much more pronounced than on the dime.
- The curve of the nostril is much more pronounced than on the dime.
- The chin on Burke’s bas relief is much rounder and extend further from Roosevelt’s face than on the dime. Also Burke’s profile does not feature a line on the chin as seen on the dime.
Based on these observations, it seems quite clear to me that Sinnock did not copy from Burke’s bas relief for his profile of FDR on the dime. However, in doing some further research into the controversy over the past few days, I was shocked to find so many who disagree.
Some sources even go as far as to give Burke the entire credit without even mentioning Sinnock. Example includes Burke’s obituary as they were printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Seattle Times:
Selma Hortense Burke, 94, of New Hope, the sculptor who created the profile of FDR used on the dime, died Tuesday at Chandler Hall, a nursing home and hospice in Newtown. The profile was taken from a bronze plaque she had made for a new federal building in Washington. The plaque, unveiled by President Harry S. Truman in 1945, was done from sketches made on butcher paper in a 45-minute session with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House. She later sculpted that image into the profile on the dime.
Selma Hortense Burke, the sculptor who created the profile of FDR used on the dime, died Tuesday at a nursing home and hospice near Philadelphia. She was 94. The profile was taken from a bronze plaque she had made for a new federal building in Washington. The plaque, unveiled by President Truman in 1945, was done from sketches made on butcher paper in a 45-minute session with President Franklin D. Roosevelt at the White House.
In fact, a Google search of “Selma Burke Dime -Sinnock” yields over 3.3 million results! (If you didn’t know, putting a minus sign [-] before a word in a Google search will exclude results that contain that word.)
The source of Roosevelt’s image on the dime has recently received much attention. John R. Sinnock, the chief engraver at the U.S. Mint, has his initials on the profile. The dime’s head, however, is merely a mirror image of the plaque created by Selma Burke, with the exception of a few detail changes in the arrangement of Roosevelt’s hair. Moreover, the National Archives and Records Administration of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library in Hyde Park, New York, stated that the dime portrait originated with the sculpture of Franklin Delano Roosevelt done by Selma Burke.
Meanwhile, Encyclopedia.com does not even have an entry for John Sinnock.
Okay, but many if not most of these examples were probably not researched and written by numismatists or experts who were just basing their “facts” on what others have previously written. Surely an organization like the Smithsonian (which claims to be the world’s largest museum and research complex) would have done a proper investigation into the matter. Right?
With no mention of the controversy or Sinnock at all, The Smithsonian American Art Museum says of Burke in her biography:
Sculptor and educator who received national recognition for her relief portrait of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which was the model for his image on the dime.
So, what do numismatists have to say?
Walter Breen wrote:
The illustrious black sculptor Selma Burke claimed that Sinnock adapted his design from her bas-relief of Pres. Roosevelt – Considering that Sinnock had also copied and signed John Frederick Lewis’s design for the 1926 Sesquicentennial half dollar, Ms. Burke’s claim is probably valid.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that Sinnock did not steal from Burke is the fact that he had already created a few different inauguration medals featuring Roosevelt’s profile dating back to 1933. The most notable for this argument is a medal designed by Sinnock for Roosevelt’s third inauguration in 1941. The profile of FDR on the 1941 medal is a near copy of one of the initial design sketches Sinnock submitted to the Commission of Fine Arts for comments and approval of the Roosevelt dime obverse design. (Special thanks to Roger Burdette [RWB] for permission to use the image of the composite sketch below.)
Why might there be any semblance of similarity between Sinnock and Burke’s portrayal at all? Because when you have two competent artists sculpting the same subject as realistically as possible, if they did their job well, why wouldn’t there be similarities?! Both are realistic likenesses of the same person!
It does not seem unrealistic to suggest that Sinnock used all of the resources available at the time to assist him with the design; which may or may not have included Burke’s design. However, it would also seem that Sinnock would not have needed to copy or borrow from Burke, especially considering that he had already created several different profiles of FDR for medals well before Burke’s bas relief.
Seeing as Sinnock created his FDR profiles over a decade before Burke’s work, one could also suggest that Burke used all available resources for the design of her bas relief; which may or may not have included Sinnock’s medals.
Ultimately, I do not see any hard evidence that Sinnock stole from Burke, or vice versa. I believe that the similarities between Sinnock’s dime and Burke’s bas relief is the result of two very talented artists creating a realistic image of the same man.
The argument over who deserves credit for the obverse design of the Roosevelt dime may never be officially resolved. There seems to be only one person who can say for sure; and that is John Sinnock himself. Unfortunately, Sinnock died shortly after the release of the Roosevelt dime following an illness of several months in 1947.
If it could be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt, however, that Sinnock did not use Burke’s bas relief to guide his design, I assert these accusations are defamatory. And to exclude Sinnock from the conversation completely, giving Burke all of the credit, is egregious.
Guesser goes on in the comment section of that forum to add:
What really irks me about the whole thing is when Sinnock is not included in the conversation. I feel bad for him. Dying in 1947, he really didn’t have that much time to defend himself. Meanwhile, Burke had nearly 50 years to continue making the claim.
It really is unfair to Sinnock. Meanwhile, there are people- willfully or unknowingly- pushing the narrative that Selma Burke is the true author of the FDR image on the dime. You have people on that FB page thanking the page for the “historical education”. No doubt, they will spread the propaganda around further entrenching the belief that this is solid historical truth and not false revisionism.
“Last week’s featured E-Sylum website recycled
the Selma Burke controversy that she – not John R. Sinnock-
designed the Roosevelt Dime portrait. It is time to put this
false claim to rest once and for all.
I have examined enlarged photographs of both FDR portraits.
Both are round, with similar view of the president, both face
the same way and both are in modulated bas-relief. That is
the extent of the similarity. If you examine minor points of
the placement of features, the characteristics of the ear and
hair plus the eyebrows you will learn, as I have, that Sinnock’s
design is 100 percent original, that he did the dime model
entirely without any influence of Selma Burke’s bas-relief
I must admit I did not do an even more conclusive test –
an overlay of photographic negatives both to the same scale.
That would improve the odds of proving Sinnock’s original
creation I’m sure.
Burke was a talented sculptor, educator and her portrait of
the 32nd president is exquisite. But it is NOT the portrait
which was placed on the Roosevelt dime. Burke was a New Year’s
baby, born either December 31st or January 1st, she was unsure
of the year (1900 or 1907, sic!). Her study of sculpture had
brought her commissions executed prior to World War II. She
had lectured widely on African art.
Following the war, when the Roosevelt dime first appeared in
1946, Burke began making claims the work was hers. Black
publications ran this as gospel. Art publications were more
skeptical. But numismatic publications continued to flame the
controversy. Breen mentions Burke in his section on the Roosevelt
Dime in his Complete Encyclopedia (p 329-30). Numismatic author,
and KP editor in Iola, Bob Van Ryzin ran a factual account in
Numismatic News, November 30, 1993, two years before Burke’s
death in 1995.
The worst account, perhaps, was the book “Notable Black American
Women” by Jesse Carney Smith (published in 1992 by the reference
book house, Gale Research) which gave Burke the entire credit
and did not even mention Sinnock.
Until we read the final word in the numismatic masterwork on
Sinnock’s coin and medal creations, by N. Neil Harris (former
editor of The Numismatist), we should stop being politically
correct and nice-nice and hang up this false claim. I couldn’t
resist, however, taking a peek at Neil’s manuscript to read
that Gilroy Roberts assisted Sinnock in the modeling of this
coin design. The controversy, thus, is not two white men versus
one black woman, it’s facts versus false claim.”
A former fetus, the “wordsmith from nantucket” was born in Phoenix, Arizona in 1968. Adopted at birth, wordsmith grew up a military brat. He achieved his B.A. in English from the University of California, Los Angeles (graduating in the top 97% of his class), where he also competed rings for the UCLA mens gymnastics team. The events of 9/11 woke him from his political slumber and malaise. Currently a personal trainer and gymnastics coach.
The wordsmith has never been to Nantucket.