Hermon Atkins MacNeil was born in Everett, Massachusetts on February 27, 1866. He was born and raised on his parent's farm. Eventually, he began his formal education in art at the Normal Art School in Boston, Massachusetts. At the age of 20, Hermon graduated and attended Cornell University to further his training in art and sculpting, as well as working as an instructor of industrial art and modeling. He spent about 2 years there between 1886 and 1888 before moving on to further his studies. It was common for artists of that time to leave the country and travel to Europe to learn about and observe artwork produced by legendary artists over the periods of thousands of years in that historical part of the old world.
After moving to Paris, France, Hermon MacNeil began his studies at Ecole des Beaus-Arts and the Julien Academy, both schools of the arts. He studied under Henri M. Chapu as well as Alexandre Falguiere. MacNeil stayed in Paris only a few years being taught under his mentors until 1891. At this time, the young sculptor retuned to America and met up with Frederick MacMonnies. The two of them worked on architectural sculptures that would be displayed at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition in Chicago. He also worked with Lorado Taft and designed draft sketches and sculptures that would be displayed for the Electricity Building.
After he visited Chicago, Hermon A. MacNeil actually moved to the city permanently and began teaching at the Art Institute of Chicago. He later started up his own art studio there and invited a fellow artist Charles F. Browne to work there with him at the building. Many of Hermon's early works depicted the Native American Indians. In fact, he first learned about them from Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show at the 1893 Chicago World Fair. MacNeil was fascinated with the rituals and life of the American Indians. After the fair closed down, he met up and became friends with a Sioux warrior named Black Pipe, who was found homeless and destitute on the Chicago streets after the Fair closed down. Black Pipe was invited to back to MacNeil's studio to help with work.
Hermon grew even more respect for the culture and people of Native America, which was slowly disappearing at the time. He had traveled to the United States southwest frontier with his studio partner Charles Brown and Hamlin Garland, a writer. In the four corners territories, an area today known as New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah, they met the Navajo, Moqui and Hopi Indian tribes. MacNeil was asked to design and create a sculpture of Navajo Chief Manuelito, who died after 4 years in prison after being captured for being a renegade of the US. The completed work of art, made from materials native to the land, brought Manuelito's widow to tears and it became a piece of cultural pride. The sculpture now resides in Gallup, New Mexico and it also boosted MacNeil's recognition as a great artist.
On Christmas day of 1895, MacNeil was married to Carol Louise Brooks, who was also a sculptor and artist herself. Around the same time, MacNeil had won an award in 1896, the Rinehart Roman Scholarship. So the husband and wife traveled to Rome and lived there for 3 years until 1899 before moving to Paris. Both of them studied the arts there and had their first son Claude MacNeil. While in Rome, MacNeil started another studio and produced bronze statues of the American Hopi Indians. Some of his works include the "The Moqui Runner - Return of the Snakes" and "The Sun Vow", which was one of his most famous works of art.
Hermon MacNeil and his family returned to the United States around 1900 after gaining much fame and reputation in Europe. He was also becoming a big name in the US as well and he started his next studio in New York City, Queens College Point. This is where he would ultimately settle down and continue his life's work of commissions and private sales. Still at the young age of 35 in 1901, he began his first works since returning to the US. One work involved the Pan-American Exposition Medal of 1901, which was closely related to the US coin he would produce later on.
He produced works that were entered into the Pan-American exposition in Buffalo and The Charleston Exposition in South Carolina in 1902. His "Fountain of Liberty" was featured at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis in 1904. More works were displayed at the Lewis and Clark Exposition of Portland Oregon in 1905 and the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915. During the St. Louis Expo in 1904, MacNeil worked with Case Gilbert to produce bas relief panels that were installed above the doors of the Palace of Fine Arts, today known as the St. Louis Art Museum.
At the US Mint, directory Robert W. Woolley started a push to redesign some of the US coins. In 1916, Hermon A. MacNeil produced and submitted the design for the new US Quarter, which would be one of his most legendary accomplishments. At the same time, another famous sculptor by the name Adolph A. Weinman had also submitted his designs, which were successfully selected for the new US dime and half dollar. The new silver quarter is famously known as the Standing Liberty Quarter. The obverse depicted a standing liberty holding a shield in her right hand and olive branch in her left hand.
The militaristic pose of liberty facing eastward (toward the right) and holding a shield in the same direction, was to symbolize America's view during World War I (which was raging out East in Europe at the time) that it wanted peace, but was willing to defend itself. The reverse of the coin depicted a flying eagle with stars along the rim of the coin. The US Mint, now under the leadership of the new Mint Director Friedrich von Engelken, wanted some design changes and so MacNeil revised the coin and put dolphins on the obverse of the coin. In the end, the Mint did make major changes to the coin without consulting with MacNeil and the first type I coins were produced in 1916.
Very few standing liberty quarters were produced in 1916 and Hermon MacNeil rightfully complained about the design changes. So the Mint passed legislation that would allow him to make the changes to the coin and so he added a chain mail vest to the liberty. Other changes were made to prevent the year from wearing off the coin and make the designers sharper. So a Type II standing liberty quarter was produced with major changes to both the obverse and reverse. The back of the coin now depicted three stars under the eagle and less stars around the rim. The obverse also included slight changes to the liberty and rim designs, which MacNeil's inclusion of chain mail armor on liberty. The liberty on the coin itself was inspired and based off of a real life woman named Doris Doscher, who was a model and actress at the time. She was also nicknamed "Girl on the Quarter".
The standing liberty quarter was produced from 1916 up until 1930 when quarter production was halted due to the Great Depression. Hermon MacNeil continued his work in various forms of art since then, but he did not work on US coinage any further. He was invited in 1927 to compete in an artistic contest called the Pioneer Woman statue competition, but unfortunately he did not win. He also did architectural work on the U.S. Supreme Court building, which is another one of his greatest masterpieces. It depicts Moses and 11 other figures on the Eastern side of the building with the motto: "Justice The Guardian of Liberty". He also worked on figures placed at the Connecticut and Missouri Capitol buildings, among other public court houses and institutions.
One of Hermon Atkin MacNeil's last pieces of art was completed in 1940 at the age of 74. This work is famously known as The Pony Express, which is located in St. Joseph, Missouri. The statue honors the early pony express postal service that was used throughout the old Western frontier in the 19th Century. The statue itself depicts a postal worker riding a swift horse through the West. MacNeil lived to be 81 years old before passing away peacefully at his home and studio where he had resided for nearly half a century.