Forgotten Feminists: Selma Burke likely inspired the presidential portrait on the U.S. dime

Selma Burke’s work was likely the inspiration behind the portrait of Franklin D. Roosevelt on the back of the U.S. dime, but often does not receive recognition for her work. 

Burke was born in Mooresville North Carolina on Dec. 31, 1900. Growing up, Burke had an interest in sculpture and would sculpt small figures from clay in a nearby riverbed. 

Her parents supported her education, though at first Burke went to school for nursing. She graduated as a registered nurse from St. Agnes Hospital School of Nursing in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1924. Burke then worked for Amelia Waring, an heiress to the Otis Elevator fortune, as a private nurse and caretaker. Waring encouraged Burke to pursue her art, and after she died Burke became a sculptor. 

Burke studied art at Sarah Lawrence College, and went to Europe twice to study under other well known artists such as Henri Matisse and Aristide Maillol. As Nazism began to rise, Burke returned to the U.S. and opened the Selma Burke School of Sculpture in 1940. 

Burke was one of the few women in the Harlem Renaissance, a period in the early 20th century that is considered the “golden age” of African-American art, literature and music. During the Harlem Renaissance, she connected with several other influential artists, including Augusta Savage, who encouraged her to teach at Harlem Community Art Center.

Burke was one of the first African American women to enlist in the Navy, where she drove a truck at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After injuring her back while working, she won a national contest for the commission of a bronze relief portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt. 

Burke requested a sitting with Roosevelt, as she believed the drawn portraits were inefficient. Burke sketched him over the course of two days in 1944.

After Roosevelt died on April 12, 1945, President Harry S. Truman revealed the sculpture. Burke sculpted Roosevelt as a younger age than he was at the time, so while credit is often given to John Sinnock, Burke and others have claimed that it was her sculpture that the image on the dime is based on.

Burke continued to sculpt well into her life, and her last sculpture was a nine foot sculpture of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1980. Today, the sculpture stands in Marshall Park in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Burke described herself as a “people’s sculptor” and wanted to appeal to a broad audience, beyond those who had an education in art. She often focused on the human body for her work, and created several sculptures of prominent African Americans, including Booker T. Washington, Duke Ellington and Mary McLeod. 

Burke died of cancer at the age of 94 on Aug. 29, 1995. Collections of her work can still be seen today, including collections at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art.

Read more from our Forgotten Feminists column here.

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