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On the Money

It’s no exaggeration to state that every American owns at least one piece of artwork by William S. Fleishell III, BA ’89. In fact, many people have trouble getting through a day without touching one of his creations. A journeyman picture engraver at the U.S. Treasury, Fleishell created the portrait of President Abraham Lincoln on the new U.S. $5 bill.

Engraver William S. Fleishell II, BA ’89, in his Capitol Hill studio. Fleishell created the portrait of President Abraham Lincoln on the new U.S. $5 bill.

Julie Woodford

One of only 40 bank note portrait engravers in the world, Fleishell joined the U.S. Bureau of Engraving and Printing in 1987, launching his engraving career with a mandatory 10-year apprenticeship. The job was a perfect fit for Fleishell, who has long been a fan of drawing and painting in the naturalistic style of the old masters. “My heroes are the 17th century Dutch painters and engravers,” explains Fleishell, who thinks of his paintings as “three-dimensional sculptures.”

Soon after landing the job, he enrolled at GW to simultaneously complete his degree in the fine arts. “Right from the start, I felt like I was at home,” he reflects, noting that his classmates were “incredibly talented” and that his professors were top notch. Prior to attending GW, Fleishell earned a certificate at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1983, where he received awards for excellence in drawing.

A seventh-generation Washingtonian, Fleishell’s family has resided in D.C.’s Capitol Hill/Navy Yard neighborhood since the 1820s. “My great-great-grandfather was a stone carver who worked on the Capitol building before the Lincoln administration, and members of my family have worked as printers in Washington since the Civil War,” he says. Fleishell also follows in the footsteps of his father, a professional artist whose drawings filled the walls of his home growing up.

Now a full-fledged journeyman portrait engraver at the bureau, Fleishell’s group is responsible for creating official engraved portraits of every U.S. president. “It’s a ceremonial thing that we’ve been doing since the Civil War,” explains Fleishell, who was chosen to engrave the portrait of President George W. Bush, as well as the late Supreme Court Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist. He also engraved a portrait of George Washington for the 1997 stamp commemorating the 150th anniversary of U.S. stamp production, as well as the border of the new $100 bill.

According to Fleishell, bank note portrait engravings take at least 300 hours to complete and are done by hand. A painstaking process, the engravings are cut into steel with hand tools and are typically done in miniature. “All the work is done backwards,” Fleishell notes, “so you have to think in reverse.” Needless to say, the pictures are hard to duplicate, making bank note portraits the primary counterfeit detector on U.S. currency.

For his portrait of Lincoln, Fleishell used a series of 1864 photographs of the 16th president by Anthony Berger as his reference. “I wanted to capture that faraway, knowing look—that emotion,” says Fleishell, who spent more than 400 hours perfecting the engraving. “To be a good engraver is to be a good interpreter.” For that reason, Fleishell spends hours researching his artistic subjects.
Fleishell has a special affinity for Lincoln because of the strong mark he left on D.C. “He did a lot to make D.C. what it was after the Civil War,” he says. Fleishell also notes that his great-great-grandfather was one of Lincoln’s guards at his inauguration.

While most of Fleishell’s work is done behind closed doors, he shares his expertise with the community whenever he gets the chance. Several years ago, Fleishell was featured on the Discovery Channel. “They filmed me for an entire day at the bureau for a segment called ‘Inside the World’s Mightiest Bank,’” he says. He also connects with the public through periodic teaching gigs, including a recent seminar at the Rhode Island School of Design.

Fleishell spends his spare time painting at his Capitol Hill studio—an old carriage house south of the Eastern Market. “My great-grandparents had a store on the same block as my studio 100 years ago,”
Fleishell notes.

He is heavily involved in “Art on Call,” a project to spruce up Washington’s 600 old emergency call boxes by creating unique, site-specific artwork for the historic relics, which used to house telephones and telegraphs. Fleishell came up with the idea for the project, which is now being administered by the D.C. Heritage and Tourism Coalition. “It’s a grass roots project that’s very dear to my heart because it emphasizes the cultural heritage and hometown aspect of Washington outside of the national political landscape,” he says. “The project commemorates the neighborhoods of D.C. through engaging, colorful plaques and sculptures depicting famous historic local events, people, and buildings. Our aim is to showcase the positive side of the city outside the murder and mayhem and to make passers by look twice at the neighborhoods they’re walking through.”

Through his myriad artistic accomplishments, Fleishell has achieved success but says that his greatest career triumph is making people happy through his work. “Last week, a woman bought one of my prints and walked away with the biggest smile on her face,” he says. “That meant the world to me.”

—Jamie L. Freedman