Artist Name

birth5/8/1878 in San Francisco, CAPicture of Aitken
death1/3/1949 in New York, NY
parentsCharles Hamilton Aitken and Katherine Sophia Higgins
educationMark Hopkins Institute of Art
Paris
Art Students League New York
awards Phelan Gold Medal (1908)
Helen Foster Barnett Prize (1908)
Gold Medal of Architectural League (1915)
Two silver medals at Panama Pacific Expo (1915)
Watrous Gold Medal (1921)

Born to Scottish parents in San Francisco, Robert Ingersoll Aitken studied with Douglas Tilden at the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art, also called the California School of Design - now the San Francisco Art Institute. After a brief three month stay in Paris in 1895 he returned home to open his own studio. The San Francisco Bohemians Club, one of Aitken's first and most faithful supporters, gave Aitken his first major commission and hosted his first public exhibition in 1896. In 1901 he won the competition for a memorial to Admiral George Dewey and was widely praised for his design. From 1901 until 1904 he was an instructor at the Institute at which he had previously been a student. In 1904 he moved to Paris where he continued his studies for three more years. During his time in Paris he met Laure Louise Deligny and the two were married in 1907, the same year he returned to New York City. Upon his return he found employment as an instructor at the Art Students League. Aitken and Laure Louise had two children, a girl named Lole Emile (1911-1983) and a boy.

His works include the Science fountain and Great Rivers statues at the Missouri State Capitol, the "Iron Mike" statue at Parris Island, South Carolina, several military sculptures at West Point, the Temple of Music and the Dewey Monument in San Francisco, California, and sculptural works for the Liberty Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. Aitken also produced the Fountain of Earth for San Francisco's Panama Pacific Exposition in 1915.

Perhaps his most famous work is the West Pediment of the United States Supreme Court building, which bears the inscription "Equal Justice Under Law." The sculpture, above the entrance to the Supreme Court Building, is of nine figures - Lady Liberty surrounded by figures representing Order, Authority, Council, and Research. These allegorical figures were in fact sculptures of real people who had a role in the creation of the building. Aitken himself is depicted in the pediment, seated to the proper left of Liberty with Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Many of his works were carved by the Piccirilli Brothers, including the pieces for the National Archives Building.

Aitken's medallic works include the majestic Panama-Pacific Exposition $50 gold piece in 1915, the 1921 American Numismatic Society medal of 1921, the Watrous Gold medal, which he himself received in 1921, "Omnia Vincit Amor" in the prestigious Society of Medalists series in 1937, and many others.

Aitken was an artistic conservative, defending classic forms and rigorous training at a time when young artists were rebelling against the traditional artistic institutions. His firmly conservative stance was on exhibit in court when he was called as an expert witness in a court case pitting Romanian modernist Constantin Brancusi against the U.S customs service. An American collector had purchased a Brancusi sculpture entitled Oiseau and customs officials had refused to classify it as art, thereby imposing a heavier import duty on it. Aitken was being cross-examined by Brancusi's attorney when the following exchange took place:

How many works of art of Mr. Brancusi's have you seen?

I haven't seen any.

You haven't seen any works by Brancusi?

You said "works of art." I have not.

Have you seen any of his works?

I have seen works like that [pointing to Oiseau] but I haven't seen any works of art.

In other words, you do not regard them as works of art.

I do not.

In contrast to De Lue, another artistic conservative who was most productive approximately thirty years after Aitken, Aitken's reputation did not suffer as a consequence of his hard-line stance against modernism. In fact, Aitken probably benefited from the notoriety he gained.

Aitken married a second time in 1934 and died just fifteen year later in 1949 aged 71.

You can click on the medals to see the reverse.

See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil1909
RA-SNE
White Metal

Aitken designed this wall plaque around 1909. Its obverse bears three young women in classic pose, one with hand covering eyes, one with hand covering mouth and one with hand covering ears. Above, legend SEE NO EVIL / SPEAK NO EVIL / HEAR NO EVIL; below to left, signed AITKEN. The reverse bears the copyright notice COPYRIGHT 1909 BY A.B.TEBBS. PAT.APPD.FOR.

This plaque measures 146mm in diameter and is made of a white metal painted in gold. The paint coat on the obverse has mostly come off and remains only as highlights. The plaque was very popular and was manufactured in various sizes and materials. A reproduction is still being made for Museum Stores.

Elisabeth Watrous Medal for Sculpture1914
RA-EWM
Bronze

Aitken designed this medal in 1914 for the National Academy of Design. The obverse bears a rearing pegasus before a stylized sun. Around, THE ELISABETH WATROUS MEDAL FOR SCULPTURE. The reverse bears a bearded man with wings, scythe and hourglass, judging sculpture of torso held in right hand. Below, TEMPUS JUDICAT.

I might be very wrong in my interpretation, but I think that Aitken expresses that time might be the harshest critic of art and that true art not only has to win the contemporary critic's heart but has to withstand the test of time. This interpretation would fit well with his strong artistic conservativsm.

Many thanks to the library of Cornell University which has allowed me to use their high quality image of this medal with the following notice:

Gift of Muriel Doebler-Glaser
Photography courtesy of the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Cornell University.

National Academy of Design President's Medal1929
RA-NAD
Bronze

The medal's obverse bears helmeted head of Minerva (r.) within assymetrical beaded border. Signed below Minerva's chin, (RA monogram).

The reverse bears an arm aiming a bow and arrow upward through the clouds. Above and below arm, ARTES / AD ASTRA (The arts towards the stars).

The medal is edge marked with MEDALLIC ART CO.N.Y.

This award was established by famous architect Cass Gilbert to be awarded by the Council of the National Academy to persons here or abroad who have made significant contributions to the advacement of the arts. Aitken designed the medal in 1929 but by 1975, the Academy's 150th anniversary, it had only been awarded seven times.

The medal measures 56.7mm (2.25") in diameter and was struck in bronze by the Medallic Art Company of New York. The mintage is not known.

Omnia Vincit Amor 1937
SOM-15.1
Red-gold bronze with brown patina
SOM-15.2
Red-gold bronze with brown patina
SOM-15.3
Golden bronze with very light tan patina
SOM-15.5
Silver

This medal was chosen as the 15th issue of the prestigious Society of Medalists series in 1937. The obverse bears an artfully draped couple embracing, woman in foreground. Legend reads OMNIA / VINCIT / AMOR (Love conquers all). The reverse bears the same couple as seen from the other side. Legend reads MAN / -KIND / LOVE A / LOVER. Signed AI /TK / EN.

The brochure which accompanied the medal had the following words from the artist:

"In making a medal or medallion the main problem is to add, if possible, to its metallic alloy the one ingredient which makes bronze imperishable - Beauty - Beauty in thought and execution. For Beauty inspires Love - Love creates Beauty."

The medal measures 73mm in diameter and 1,160 pieces were struck in bronze by the Mdallic Art Company of New York. Around 100 silver medals were struck from the same dies in the 1970s.

References: Marqusee 4

SOM-15.1
Bronze
73.0mm (2.87in)
Red-gold bronze with brown patina
THE SOCIETY OF MEDALISTS FIFTEENTH ISSUE
MEDALLIC ART CO.N.Y.-BRONZE ROBERT AITKEN SCULPTOR
SOM-15.2
Bronze
73.0mm (2.87in)
Red-gold bronze with brown patina
THE SOCIETY OF MEDALISTS FIFTEENTH ISSUE ROBERT AITKEN SCULPTOR
MEDALLIC ART CO.N.Y.-BRONZE
SOM-15.3
Bronze
73.0mm (2.87in)
Golden bronze with very light tan patina
THE SOCIETY OF MEDALISTS FIFTEENTH ISSUE ROBERT AITKEN SCULPTOR
MEDALLIC ART CO.N.Y.-BRONZE
SOM-15.4
Bronze
73.0mm (2.87in)
Golden bronze with very light tan patina
THE SOCIETY OF MEDALISTS FIFTEENTH ISSUE MEDALLIC ART CO.N.Y.-BRONZE
ROBERT AITKEN SCULPTOR
SOM-15.5
Silver
73.0mm (2.87in)
THE SOCIETY OF MEDALISTS FIFTEENTH ISSUE - ONE OF LIMITED ISSUE OF 700
MEDALLIC ART CO.N.Y. - .999+ PURE SILVER
  • Fountain of Earth

    Fountain of Earth - Panama-Pacific International Exposition (1915)

    The fountain consists of two parts: the larger and central part is composed of a globe representing the earth, with four panels of figures on the four sides, representing incidents of life on earth or riddles of existence. The smaller part is on the same pedestal to the south of the central component. the pedestal is divided into two groups by a formalized wing throught the center. The two scenes here represent life before and after earthly existence.

    Original image from a site about the Panama-Pacific International Exposition. A more detailed explanation of the fountain can be found in Sheldon Cheney's book An Art-lover's Guide to the Exposition: Explanations of the Architecture, Sculpture and Mural Paintings.

  • West Pediment of U.S. Supreme Court

    Liberty Enthroned - West Pediment of U.S. Supreme Court (1933)

    The Supreme Court Building's architect Cass Gilbert recommended Aitken for this project and gave him free rein in choosing the subject matter for the sculpture, requesting only that the composition "be worthy of the great Supreme Court."

    Aitken proposed a design incorporating nine allegorical figures, and described them as follows:

    My simple Sculptural story is as follows: Liberty enthroned - looking confidently into the Future - across her lap the Scales of Justice - She is surrounded in the composition by two Guardian figures. On her right "Order"... On her left "Authority"...Then to the right and left... two figures each represent "Council." Then to the right and left...two figures represent "Research" Past and Present.

    Aitken surprised many by choosing likenesses of people influential in the creation of the new building, including himself.

Contact me if you have links that might merit inclusion on this page.

Books & Articles

American Art Medals, 1909-1995 by David Thomason Alexander
David T. Alexander's book can be purchased at the above link. Highly recommended for anyone interested in SOM. I am deeply indebted to him for all the information I used to document the SOM medals on this site.

Research Archives and Websites

Museums

Addison Gallery
Phillips Academy's Art Museum in Andover, Massachusetts.
California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, California.
Cornell University
The library at Cornell has a beautiful example of Aitken's Watrous Medal for Sculpture.