History & technique of the medal


The work of J-C Chaplain by André Michel 
Medals in France "from Ponscarme to the end of the Belle époque"  
Jules Chaplain in Paris the 4th of December 1910 - Speech by Raymond Poincaré of the French Academy 
Hubert Ponscarme's lesson

Art & Technique

Medals and engraving (1987)
The art and technique of the medal by M. Henri Dropsy member of the institut


Authors' biographies

Artists & Works

Artists and works by Henri Classens (1930)





The work of J-C Chaplain by André Michel
«Papers of political and literary debates» in the 18th may 1910 issue

After the death of J-C Chaplain (June 12th 1909, I could but only sketch here the portrait of the man and artist we had just lost. Today, his student and successor at the Beaux arts academy, M.F.Vernon, restitutes to the public his nearly complete works through a retrospective exhibition at the "Salon des artistes français". After wandering amongst the sculptures of the year, often too bulky and vainly turbulent…(one of these you may observe at the entrance of the Chaplain exhibition, a thundering patriotic group sculpture, with profuse crossed bayonets and convulsed figures which will undoubtebly, more surely than the fiercest ennemi, scare the visitor away…). One cannot help but experience, after seeking refuge in the following room where are collected Chaplains drawings, studies and medals, a blissful feeling of rest and contemplation. He absolutely loathed chatterboxes… Here, nothing neither stirs nor cries; not a single excessive movement, nor an unecessary word. And yet, how much life has been condensed into these slender tablets, how much art and thought ! Let us take a moment to reflect on the work of this silent being

Here it is in its whole. The most ancient piece dates back from 1864: He had just arrived in Rome as a resident of the famous Medicis Villa, having just been granted the first prize in the yearly contest : Bacchus giving water to a panther (medal), and a buste of antic Mercury (engraved in fine stone), and without taking a days rest, he set to work. All his works from that day on are highly significant. He never spoke of his roman years without a feeling of thankful emotion, a somewhat tender gravity, and when, thirty-three years later, he dedicated to his beloved friend, the architect Pascal, the splendid medal (of which the cast version is the best worth seeing), he expresses, on the reverse side, all the fervent enthousiasm of their faith and youth. On the foreground, a sturdy oak tree digs its roots into the holy land ; in the middleground, unfurls a countryside landscape ; and at the far end of the vast horizon, in the beaming rays of twilight, rises St-Peters' dome. Between two folds of hilly land, two slight figures emerge, which, in the midst of this immensity, suddenly take on a perculiar importance : two youngsters, two pilgrims, reaching towards the city, the skies, beauty, with impatient and eager arms and gestures of passionnate admiration and love. In none of his other works, has he ever expressed such eloquence and lyricism.

He was one of the very few « romans » who did not waste his time spent in Rome. He could have, as so many before him, contracted this strange superstition peculiar to academic and roman pedagogy, which considered the study of old french art as dangerous… Allow me here to recall a personal memory. One day, I brought to his workshop on "Cour Mazarine" (around 1888 or 1889) some detailed photographies of sculptures from the Reims catherdal. It was in fact an extraordinary series of medallions, with almost "leonardo-like" smiles, lost in the shadows of the transepts' upper facades, and also some of the angels holding guard around the basilica. He wanted to believe that this was of the best " Italian fifteenth century" , and couldn't bring himself to the fact that it was simply "French thirteenth century". But he did admit that taking care of these matters was still "making art", contradicting the opinion of Charles Garnier who disdained them as simple "archeology". For him, Rome was a period of meditation, work, grave and sincere enthousiasm ; There he acquainted himself with the masters, and nature. He developped a conception of "style" which, for him, could never be reduced to frozen and stereotyped calligraphy, which provides ready-made phrases, recipes for the "ideal, and invariably exempting itself from observation, thought and love. The masters… I think one can safely say that most of all, he learnt at their contact à lesson of simplicity and willpower. Laurent de Medicis, during his Sylvae, melanchollicaly celebrated the golden age when thought, oblivious of doubt, went towards truth without neither strain nor worry.
Non dubbio alcun. non fatica ha il pensiero. Senza confusione in tende il vero...
Dai saper troppo nasce inquietudine…

For modern artists as for theorists, a concern arose from the increasing complexity of the problems brought forth and multiplied by the subtlety and ever sharpenning curiosity of sensations, and the breaking up of the schools and doctrines. At the old school, Chaplin disciplined his will and sensibility, which hidden by a cold and taciturn appearance, was actually extremely vivid and vulnerable. Figures of Ceres copied at Herculanum, Demeters' royal profiles cast in gold, he first learnt the "magna tranquilitas". And later, when his brother in law and friend Albert Dumont initiated him to the art of Greek vase painters, he understood all the more the grace, delicay and variety they possessed.

Through portraits, and as early as in his first works, he was brought to measure himself to living nature, and always kept in mind thanks to the antic masterpieces,that an true artist must always come back to an interpretation or transposition of life. His directors, Schnetz in 1864, Mrs Francis Wey in 1865, his friend Petit de Julleville in 1866, Brune in 1867, all offered him the opportunity to demonstrate his precocious skill in this field. Nowadays no-one has ever invested as much time, intelligence, penetration, and sensibility in the rendering of a particular likeness.

Condensing, summarizing, suggesting in a few strokes, such is the law which the art of the medal imposes on its followers. Chaplain was predestinated to this fate by the most intimate predispositions of his contemplative mind and all the inclinations of his character. As we studying one after the other each medal of this beautiful collection we witness, in the unity of a lifetime of reflexion invariably oriented towards it's original principle, the progressive widening and loosening of his talent. The composition of his reverse sides are particularly instructive to analyse. When in 1867, he created for the universal exhibition, the high-relief medal representing on the head side Napoleon the 3rd wrapped in an imperial cloak, and on the reverse the exhibition palaces from which spring 3 figures, symbolizing Arts and Industry, he already proves himself destowed with a strong style and genuine drawing skills, but his classicism still comes across as a bit too academic. And as the demands of the orders, and current affairs which arouse them, the appeals of contemporary life of which he had to write the history in his own words, will lead him to address more diverse and unexpected topics, he will prove himself surprisingly clever, but without ever having to sacrifise the style of his art. His "style", never emulated nor systemed, springs from intelligent observation and personal and direct meditation. At certain times he has, as he himself admitted to me, hesitated at first ; like the time he had to make the medal for the social housing company, facing the many realistic and informal details imposed to him : A certain sense of "tradition" advised him to use accomodating and ready-made allegories : He went straight to the point and never had reason to regret it.

But let us observe, instead of reasoning. Following the siege of Paris, he was asked to commemorate with a medal, the heroic part played by the aerostats (hot air balloons) in the defence of the city. The personification of the Paris still young and beautiful, leaning on the coat of arms where the Heraldic ship forever "rocks but never capsizes" (the official motto of the city of Paris, in latin : Fluctuat nec mergitur), emerges from a landscape of forts and casemates. She watches the balloon disappearing in the distance, and with an adorable wave of the hand, sends out an ultimate sign of gratitude, hope and farewell. When the Russian sailors come forth baring their first words of friendship, the figure of France, standing on a dock covered in flowers, next to a triumphal mast, salutes with both arms outstreched towards the approaching fleet in a gesture of welcome, greeting and celebration… a motion, an expressive motion drawn from the very heart of life and granted, yet without giving up any of its truthfulness, spontaneity or countenance, an immortal beauty, that is the true glory of great drawers.

There are, in the Chaplain medal collection, two series particularly interesting to leaf through : One which could be called "artists", and one "doctors". Here are Baudry, Delaunay, Garnier, Jean-Paul Laurens, Guillaume, Gounod, Dubois, Henriquel Dupont, but also Pascal who I have mentioned before. These portraits are almost always admirablel. Paul Baudry with his outgoing forehead, his worried and museful eyes, Guillaume, subtle to the point of delicacy, Gounod with his easy and effusive enthusiasm, Delauney and his stubborn and raging profile, Garnier whom Carpeaux had already immortalised and but Chaplain was able to renew, just as lifelike but rather more condensed and nuanced in its likeness, and finaly, the michelangelo-like Jean-Paul Laurens, with on the reverse side , his easel on which rests the great open book of French chronicles.

To accompany and provide comments on each of these figures, the creativity and tactfulness of the medal-maker can never be found wanting, the reverse of the medal representing Guillaume as sculptor, theorist and professor is particularly well executed… But one may rightly observe that in this case the task was rather easy ; the traditional symbols, and when wanting the figures borrowed from the master's works, provide all the proper and adequat subjects which could be desired.

"Drama artists" constitute a sort of intermediate series ; Such as the medal Got, with the main hall of the « Comédie Française » represented on the reverse. Mrs Rose Caron, placed in the theater set of Sigurd's fourth act. There is also the one of Mrs Hartet, standing between the Source Sacrée (Holy spring) and the Comédie Française's archades. The transition from allegory to reality is done with such ease that the mind doesn't even think of raising an objection It was for the "Doctors" series that Chaplain had to bravely involve himself personaly. The school catalogue offered him no live models ; Modern realism invited him to "documentation " and " scenes of life". He eventually went his own way by proving once again that according to Goethe's saying, all poetry takes its source in reality. Most of the time he combines, as on the back of the Hartet tablet, discreet allegory and representation of contemporary life : For Doctor Houchard for example, the personification of Science crowned in laurel, drapped, bare-armed, quill pen in hand, is meditating ; on her side, philtres, microscopes,and even the cage for the guinea pigs which were used to conduct the emancipative experiments, and in the background, through an open door, the clinic, rows of sick beds, a little girl crouching, her hair loose, a bunch of flowers on her bedside. Further down, an elderly woman sunk in her sheets, her bonnet down to her eyes, and what a portrait of the doctor ! In Fournier's words, it's a bold and charming mix of poetic allegory and direct observation. The doctor is sitting, in his medical outfit ; He has his looking glass close to hand, a table, an ink-stand, the prescription sheet drawer, a shelf baring all the necessary phials… And in front of him, gleefully discarding his crutch, the healed figure of Love departs with such a lovely movement of gratefulness and thanks ! While the doctor with a movement of his hand, warns him never to do it again. On the front of the Lannelongue Medal, a wounded laborer and mother, come to seek healing, carrying their infant child wrapped in a chale… With a flexibility upon which a superficial observer might wonder, Chaplain's art, always true to himself, goes from the simple genre picture, to the most premium and sophisticated style. The medal dedicated to the social housing company is almost a Greuze scene, the working class interior with it's familiar setting composed of country style clocks, flower pots on the windowsill, lamps and lamp-shades ; While the housewife is serving the soup, the father is bouncing a toddler in his arms, and children's toys await beneath a chair…

Admitting he has at times, when the subject didn't yield, feel a certain weariness in the creation of reverse sides and in the ever haunting desire to renew his art, he found renewed strenght in nature, and it can be said that his later portraits are by far the most beautiful. More and more, with masterly confidence and temperance, he knew how to draw out a physionomist feature, render in a single tilt of the head the posture of the whole body, characterise acute likeness, profound rather than anecdotical, penetrate, convey the inner soul, while still widening and purifying his drawing and style ; The work he leaves behind is an enrichment to french art.

None has ever been as worthy of the monument we wish to erect in his praise, and it shall not be (needless to say) one of those bulky, affected statues, alike so many which have been devoted to the most notorious mediocrities of departmental politics. We shall simply lay on his tomb a sign which will remind the passerby that a master artist for whom thought, intergrity and art were inseparable, lies in eternal sleep and rests from the strain of a long and glorious labour.


FORWARD TO THE EXHIBITION BOOK: Medals in France "from Ponscarme to the end of the Belle époque"(Is commonly called "belle époque" – which means "beautiful times" in French - the period extending from 1870 to 1914, during which France went through a period of opulence and economical growth)
Which took place at the Hôtel de la monnaie (hall of coins) from June to September 1967. By Pierre DEHAYE, head of coins and medals

I present to you half a century of medals, the half century preceding the First World War, the half century which will witness and end in "la Belle époque". Scenes of numismatic life which offer globally, a particular tone, illustrate a certain sensibility, evoke a climate, even though, as in any given period of time, several generations overlap. Amongst the medal makers involved, some, such as Oudiné who passed away at the turn of the century, contributed rather in echoing the past, whereas others like Henry Nocq (1868-1944), Ovide Yenecesse (1869 – 1947) have only participated in this period by baring their first artistic fruits. Yet another generation, of men born in between the 30's and 50's, will bloom and prevail until the war. This generation is dominated by a few exceptional talents: Ponscarme (the eldest), Chapu the pioneer, Chaplain, Roty, Alexandre Charpentier, and is supported by a host of artists of lesser renown, and lesser genius surely, but equally skilful, for that matter, in rendering the spirit of their epoch.

In the decline of the Empire, and as the republic sets in (for the third time and apparently the last), some characteristic properties emerge or accentuate themselves : A growing concern for dignity and respectability, especially present among common people, lower middle class, merchants, city labourers and country folk; the importance attributed to countenance; the popularization of tributes given to hard work, education ; A newly acquired admiration for technical progress; an interest in new activities, leisure activities of which some will integrate our everyday life and occupy a prominent position : Cycling, mountain climbing, skiing, seaside swimming and bathing, the automobile, the aeroplane ; And to top it off, a kind of grave good-heartedness, a lost civility, a somewhat burdensome formality, which may well confine one to contrition. Therefore, more than ever, the allegory prevails; pearl of speech, it is the omnipresent ornament of medals. Nevertheless it has been decried, being generally associated with heroes and gods, and all the symbolism taken from Olympus' accessories and attributes. Indeed, Mythology has lost its popularity, the shield, trident, lyre and caduceus have fallen into disrepute. But its all for the best regarding middle class allegory, civil, anonymous, reduced to the archetype of a woman, bearing only her veils, for want of charm.

Inherent to this period's medal making, the woman is generally less clothed than the other figures surrounding her, regardless of weather. However, she is often lighter than air, which tones down any promiscuity, facilitates any attitude; smiling or crying, deep meditation, assiduous gardening, attending or representing. It also favours any impersonation: death or victory, electricity fairy or high-speed road, progress or atonement…. Feelings is probably what is least left wanting ; beautiful, gripping, atrocious, heroic, and even sublime (eyes turned to the skies or then compulsory) ; loving, killing, suffering, with inspired expressions, tortured hands, which claim to make one forget the indecency of body and posture… Ailing of good taste, self-denied sadism, we love the hopeless if pain reveals them, the poor if misery has not yet sagged their breasts… Maurice Rheims, in his study, The Art of 1900 or the Jules Verne Style *, expresses his views on sculpture in his time. For this, so to speak, he deserves à medal.

At first glance, this thousand piece exhibition may give an impression of monotony and tire ones attention. But if one does give closer attention one will discover that medals from this period, praised early on as a brilliant art of renewal, even to a certain point somewhat laudatic, was actually a new kind of art, breaking away from the previous one in three different ways: deontology, technics and aesthetics.
* Graphic arts and occupations, 1065

In the 19th century still, so many seem to forget the examples given by Pisanello, and other renaissance medal makers, for whom conception and production could not be separated. The constraints of medal making have, as early as the 16th century, led to the splitting of tasks between creator and executor: This will particularly be the case during the reign of Louis 14th, in which period nothing relating to the glory of the king, which is the essential vocation of the medal, was left to individual initiative. The engraver had to constrain himself to carving in steel a work of art of which every detail had been determined by others than himself. The revolution will come and go, without really significantly modifying the process of medal making: Routines and habits can only evolve at a slow pace; at Andrieu's period still, the he stands out from his contemporaries by carving his own models (Bertrand Andrieu, 1761-1822). The engraver is much too often not considered as a true artist, at least not in today's meaning of the word; he is the hand, but the idea comes from another. This other however cannot be considered a medal maker, for he lacks the technical skills to produce his own models. This classification can in itself be the explanation to the slow but steady decay of medals' aesthetics from the 17th to the 19th century. Even though the medal still remains admirable from a technical point of view, it lacks more and more expression, spirit, a certain something which enables a thrilling personal vision to take material form if the artist is the one who performs the transfer. But how can one express this thrill, inspire matter if there is no contact, no dialogue between the artist and the medium, if a third party interprets the drawing or modelling? A truly successful collaboration would require two equal artists, and tow very similar sensitivities, which can rarely be the case. One can easily notice, even today, when particular circumstances call for the collaboration of two artists in the making of a medal, where one creates the subject and drawing, while the other translates it in modelling or engraving, part of the works "flavour" is lost in the process. The one designing the subject cannot foresee the reaction of the clay, plaster or steel. This could have inspired him to arrange differently his lines, stratification, the mass balance. Nonetheless, the interpreter finds himself bound by his instinct to stay loyal to the given subject; He could only give way to the unavoidable variations which normally arise during the production if he were the only one concerned, for the creative process is a continuous one: The true medal craftsman knows very well that between the original sketch and production, the conception modulates, adapts, and that a truly awesome idea often arises from matter itself.

It was at the dawn of the era which concerns us today, that Oudiné (1810-1887) finally proclaimed as a law, that the engraver shouldn't limit himself to interpreting the drawing of another artist ; He imposed on all of his apprentices, as an unbreakable rule, as the touchstone of this vocation, and as a duty for all engravers, to "never entrust the steel solely with the mind's conception", according to a quote by Roger Marx, who had great knowledge of medals, and was one of the great militants of this art form, and who deservedly paid tribute to Oudiné for taking a decided stand*.

This demanding deontology happily, coinciding with a technical revolution, enabled artists to embrace an engraving career without having acquired any previous qualification as a steel carver.

By the 1800s** , a new machine called the "tour a réduire" began to be used, making it possible to engrave the medal directly in its final size, by reducing a model previously crafted in larger proportion by the artist. From then on consequently, a 144 millimetre wide medal for example, could be automatically obtained from a 20 to 30 centimetre wide cast model. The machine does the reduction, while the artist simply has to verify, after the engraving process and before the steel forging, the faithfulness of the pressing instruments. If this weren't the case, he merely had to ask an engraver to do the necessary adjustments, if he doesn't master steel work himself. For the medal-maker can now on never have held a chisel in his life. The huge consequences this technical breakthrough has had on the medal aesthetics are easily observed: The very distinct frontier between modelling and casting on one side, engraving and pressing on the other, is now disappearing. The modelled medal can now be pressed, mechanical engraving being able to faithfully render the soft, smooth contours of the model.

The attraction, and, one may safely say, the easiness of this new craft, soon put an end to the ancient technical of steel carving; After Alphée Dubois (1831-1905) and Jules-Clément Chaplain (1839-1909); a new era in medal making began. They were the last of the true engravers. The new masters, firstly Roty (1846-1911), will devote themselves to this new technology, the « tour à réduire ».

This machine put an end to the monopoly held by the engravers guild over medal making, and favoured the prevailing of a new aesthetic. It is difficult today, when one observes the medal made by Hubert Ponscarme, in the likeness of Naudet, member of the Academy « des Inscritpions et Belles lettres »( inscriptions and beautiful letters), to imagine that the date of it's making in 1867, was a revolutionary year. And yet, for the first time the artist withdrew the listel and removed the milling*. This is what Jean Foville said in 1900 while retrospectively going over one century of French medals**. He describes this revolution as if it were another Bastille Day. That's why Ponscarme's initiative was both bold and symbolic. It was Bold considering the formal sternness which was generally imposed on this period's medals, a rigid formality enhanced by the monochrome, dark patinas, such as the famous « chocolate » patina. Symbolic, as it represents the renewal which shook an art where skill, convention, dryness, and temperance had eventually taken over spirit of invention and feeling for life.

* Roger Marx, French medal-makers since 1789. Society for the diffusion of art books, Paris 1897
** The first « tour a réduire » we know of, was invented by a Russian medal craftsman and mechanic called Nartov, at the beginning of the 18th century (between 1710 and 1730). Another "tour a réduire" was made by the Saxon Merckleinèn in 1767 following the same process. At the beginning of the 19th century a medal maker from Besançon, Jean-Baptiste Maire, constructed a device to reduce medals using a very different method. Following yet another procedure, which is still most commonly used nowadays, Ambroise Wohgemuth built a "tour a graver" in 1820, to reduce and engrave medals and cameos. However, it differs from the ones we use today, for all of these devices were put in motion by foot or hand, and did not include a drilling tool; they only allowed to make very shallow engravings, and were of approximate faithfulness to the original, which called for many manual adjustments. This will be the case up until the Janvier establishment, following the basics of the Wohgemuth device, a buff wheel including a drill which could rotate at 3500 tours per minute, thanks to an electric motor. And in 1899, the new gold coins (of which the model is owed to Chaplain) were stamped using this process. Soon after, the exact date I was unable to find, the "monnaie de Paris" (Paris' coin making establishment) put into use its first tour à réduire, built according to Wolhgemuth's model by one of their mechanics, Pascal Domec (born in 1863, Domec entered the Monnaie de Paris in 1882 And stayed there until 1938, occupying successively the positions of mechanic, foreman, and finally chief mechanic). But much earlier than that, the tour a réduire had been generalised amongst all medal craftsmen, who had their steel models executed in workshops if they themselves did not own such equipment.

If the works presented in our current exhibition may still be seen as quite formal, one cannot help but notice that nature has nevertheless been introduced, that common people have appeared massively, that scenes of every day life have come into sight, often with authentic charm. Medals, as sculptures, get rid of their old disguise in order to adopt modern appearance. The acceptance of every day wear in art is more revolutionary than, say, the academy's admission of neologism. A more direct form of expression is now acceptable. One no longer needs to express oneself through the dissimulation of ancient draped creatures; "reality is worthy to be represented just the way it is, the real world no longer means lowness and vulgarity, soon the smoky horizons, factory chimneys, and machinery will have their own painters and poets". These are the words of Master Maurice Rheims*, one of the most knowledgeable individuals in the art of this period, and who kindly accepted to present, in the sharp and discerning forward of this catalogue, the new medal aesthetic.

* Is called « Listel » the embossed bordure which forms, still today, the contour of coins and certain medals. The milling (grènetis in French), which sometimes replaces the listel ,or is added to its interior, is composed of a succession of "grains", embossed specks.
** French medal craftsmen at the Universal Exhibition in 1900, by Jean de Foville in the paper « Gazette Numismatique française » (French paper of numismatic), 1900. Jean de Forville, born in 1842, was the directory of Coins and Medals from 1893 to 1900

His testimony is made all the more precious by the fact that half a century (and more) went by since the first praises were readily given to pay tribute to the instigators of this renewal. Hence, Roger Marx wrote as early as 1898: "During the last third of the 19th century, the art of medal-making has experienced in France, a level of splendour which hasn't been equalled for a very long time". Foville, which we have already quoted earlier, exclaims himself in 1900 : « The renaissance of the medal is one of the most outstanding events in contemporary, art history… the renewal of an art which, after centuries of glory, had fallen into decadence and oblivion***." Foville makes an exception for the medals of Duvivier, Droz, Andrieu, Galle, Brenet, Tiolier, Gatteaux, Barre, Depaulis ou Domard! He probably lacked perspective in his most recent works, but perhaps he also lacked total objectivity when the Revolution and the empire were concerned: « What can be said of the series of medals engraved under Denon! ****, art has no part in it ». And as for Angustin Dupré: « He wasn't really an artist. » About his Hercules piece, which was later pressed onto our 10 francs coins and seems so remarkable to us! "Everyone knows it but no-one notices it. » But again, isn't it « the noble and lively sower of our new silver currency***».

*Op.cit., p.VI.
** Roger Marx, The rebirth of the medal in France, in "The studio" magazine, oct. 1898, London. One can also consult by the same author, Contemporary medal craftsmen, 1898, Paris, Henri Laurens editions, and Modern medal craftsmen at the Universal Exhibition of 1900, 1901, Henri Laurens editions
***op.cit.,p, x, note **
**** Dominique Vivant Denon (17/7/182) was named director of Museums and Currencies, when he came back from his Egyptian campaign in 1804, and occupied this position until 1815.

If we extend the comparison as we go back in time, the enthusiasm does not weaken: Chaplain, regarded at the time as an undisputed school headmaster, cannot bear being compared to Pisanello, Matteo dei Pasti, Boldu or Sperandio: « He's more violently truthful than they». As for Oscar Roty, the rising master, of whom the influence is spreading widely: « Neither the ancients nor the renaissance Italian medal-makers have ever managed even in their most delicate female portraits to match the excellence of his tender and perfect art ». Will this praise be softened when confronted to an artist who has not yet acquired great fame; Coudray, then thirty-six, « greatest hope of the younger generation ! » Nay: With his Orpheus, « All the ancient beauty and pain is revived*».

Is Foville's praise an isolated one? Not at all. In a substantial article in the « Revue belge de Numismatique » (Belgian paper of numismatic) in 1910, we can for instance acknowledge this statement: « France has shown, for three quarts of a century, a blossoming of this art (of medals which hasn't been equalled at any other period". Naming Champlain, Roty, Daniel-Dupuis, « these distinguished artists », and specifying: « never has a Greek or Italian engraver attained the dramatic grandeur such as transpires from the astonishing Carnot's funeral plate, by Roty** »

If, nevertheless, the art of medal makers of the « Belle Époque » should seem at first more remote from us than the art of the Greek coin engravers or renaissance medal craftsmen, it is important that we find in this the opportunity to reflect on the subjectivity of aesthetic appraisal, and we shall be thankful to those who are to help us, in these circumstances, to have ascendance over the fluctuations of taste by giving to each work the kind of attention they deserve according to their epoch, and most of all to Master Henri Dropsy and Mr. Hubert Yencesse who provided us with substantial notes, as well as those who were willing to lend us the works which were missing in our coin collection, lenders whose names are listed further.

To all, I shall like to express my warm and sincere thanks.

Director of Coins and Medals

* Jean de Foville, oP. rit., p. x, note **.
** Ch. Buis, esthétique of Numismatique, 21 p. ; in « Revue belge de Numismatique », Brussels

Jules Chaplain in Paris the 4th of December 1910 -
Speech by Raymond Poincaré of the French Academy


In memory of the noble artist Jules-Clément Chaplain, a simple monument of serene beauty had to be devoted to him by the reverent hands of his friends and admirers; it seems appropriate for the inauguration to take place on a somewhat sorrowful day, devoid of ostentation, in the peacefulness of this cemetery and the intimacy of this meeting. The unadorned medallions of Mrs. Puech and Vernon, harmoniously framed by the simple lines drawn by Mr.Moyaux, and this funeral stela, remind us of Chaplain's countenance, of one of the great tragedies which befell on him, a grey sky, the silence of the tombs, the assistance and emotion of a few friends, this is what the memory of the master calls for. Had we tried to glorify his name in a more sumptuous setting, we would have betrayed his views and ignored the reserve and dignity of his discreet and laborious life.

Born in Montaigne, on July the 12th 1839, Chaplain entered the school of « Beaux-Arts » in 1857. He had been the pupil of Jeffrey who, later on, before his death, lived to see Chaplain become a fellow member of the Institute, and a colleague of Oudiné's, of whom he always spoke of with touching gratefulness.

Even though he showed early on a rare talent as a sculptor, he soon after felt a particular attraction to relief and medal making. Already at the time, it seemed as if his meditative and concentrated nature fancied reflecting itself in his creations, where in a few decisive strokes were condensed so much spirit and truthfulness.

In 1860, Chaplain placed second in the Rome contest for medal and gem engraving. He had chosen, with a liberty still rather constrained, an academic motif: a warrior laying the palm of Victory on the altar of Mars. Hardly three years had passed before this gifted artist rid himself of the barriers of his education and the jury awarded him first prize for a medal, where a charming figure of Mercury is feeding water to a panther, and for a gem, on which was engraved, with an utmost reverence for the antic, another head of Hermes.

From 1864 to 1868, Chaplain was the happy resident of the Medicis villa, and every year, he sent to the Parisian « Salons » busts, medallions or medals, which soon brought to the connoisseur's knowledge the emergence of this striking new personality. Meanwhile, with the same scrupulous consciousness which had been the landmark of his talent since his youth, Chaplain pursued his artistic studies; There, with tireless curiosity, he drew lessons from the past, measuring himself, through attentive drawing, to the masters of the Italian renaissance.

Of this long stay on mount Pincio Chaplain cherished unforgettable memories, and many years later, in 1897, when carving on a plate the profile of his colleague and friend the architect Pascal, he conveyed on the reverse side to the figures of the two young men advancing towards Saint-Peter's through the roman countryside, a vestige of the enthusiasm of his twenties.

Back in Paris, Chaplain took part in the anguish and dangers of warfare; then, with the courage of a good labourer, he set back to his unfinished work. He then never ceased to produce, either excellent sculptural compositions, like the statue of Rollin which adorns the great amphitheatre of the Sorbonne, or most of all, these small master pieces through which he immortalised the secret fugitiveness of human physiognomy.

I can still picture him, towards the end of his life, working in his small workshop on the « rue Mazarine », bathed in the melancholy light of the Institute's courtyard. He was then loaded with honours and surrounded with glory. The devotion of a woman worthy of him enveloped his old age in tender care; Family affection warmed his household; but successive grieves had ruined his spirits, and he kept locked at the bottom of his heart, with stoical resignation, an inconsolable desperation.

Only work could offer him solace. He was a sight to behold in his backroom, crammed with engravings, casts, knick-knacks, sitting in front of his easel and stubbornly persevering, with infinite patience, in the modelling of a likeness. In a face he would be trying to reproduce, he would observe the characteristic features, the lines which could seem unimportant but were actually essential, the little nothings which made up the whole; and from all these details, carefully recorded, he would then, through a highly experienced science of synthesis, extract what would finally live on through the medal's embossment, on the medal's front side. While he was accomplishing this double task of analysis and elimination, he seemed to be quietly carrying out a heroic battle against nature, and thus generally preferred to remain silent. When he did engage in conversation, it was only to utter short sentences, filled with thoughtfulness, obviously despising any unnecessary word.

He devoted the same meticulous loyalty to the preparation of his reverse-sides. The allegories or symbols represented would slowly shape themselves in his mind, through the strain of solitary reflection. And before petrifying them by casting or pressing, he would first strip them of any needless complications, simplify them, bring them down to the key elements and essential indications. He preached, with reason, that the art of medal making followed rigorous laws, which could be compared neither to painting, nor sculpture, and trying to imitate the perspective of the first, or the plasticity of the other, would be making a ghastly mistake.
Moreover, Chaplain was, in all his compositions, served by perfect taste and a sense of temperance which he had drawn from the very essence of antiquity. As a brother in law and friend, who was both a great archaeologist and highly literate, and whose name has remained dear to the French University, Albert Dumont, led the young Chaplain on the path to ancient Greece. Through a tight and fertile collaboration, the two friends studied ancient vases, hydriai and lekythoi, chalices and amphorae, kraters and kantharoi, and Chaplain faithfully copied them on plates, which today bespeak of his religious respect for ancient beauty. In these medals, one can discern something of the ideal simplicity and eternal grace which had, beneath the Athenian sun, bewitched the artist.

We were able this very year, at M. Vernon's happy initiative, to admire in its whole the abundant and varied works of our late beloved friend, at the French Salon des Artistes. So many chapters of our contemporary history are found written down on the thousand plates of this collection! After the president's gallery, admittedly a bit austere, we find the painter's gallery: Baudry, with on the reverse side the personification of painting, and in the background, the Opera house; Gérôme, with a mosque and a sphinx, Jean-Paul Laurenc, with an easel holding the book of ancient French chronicles; Meissonier; Bonnat; Cabanel, with a woman gazing at the stars; Delaunay, with Apollo playing the lyre. Then the politicians : Gambetta, Jules Simon, Jules Ferry ; the sculptors, like Guillaume ; the poets, like Victor Hugo ; the composers, like Gounod ; the architects, like Garnier ; the scientists, like Joseph Bertrand, Hervé Faye, Hermite, Berthelot ; the actors, like Got, the divas, like Mme Caron ; the administrators or moralists, like Gréard or Liard ; the historians, like Sorel ; the doctors like Trélat, Tillaux, Bouchard, Fournier ; divinities, like Mme Bartet..

Add to that the magnificent series of memorial medals, from the « 1867 Universal exhibition», until « The Russian squadron's visit to Toulon » ; from « The Hot-air balloons defending Paris », to « The Inauguration of the City Hall », from « The International Metre Commission », to « The Athenian Olympic Games ».

In his way of approaching such a diversity of subjects, Chaplain never left any room for monotony. Spiritual when depicting the healed Cherub, he can also express tragedy when representing the city of Paris besieged; lyrical when celebrating the grandeur of the Exhibitions; downcast when devoting a medal to the Protection of the Infants ; epic when picturing the figure of France, crowned with laurel, welcoming the vessels of an ally nation. But, throughout these changes in tone, neither a sour note nor a symptom of poor taste ever transpired. Everywhere and at anytime, one can note the same concern for harmony, the same tactfulness, the same restrain. Everywhere and at anytime, can be found in various shapes, according to the different subjects, this unity of style which was Chaplain's artistic reflection of his impeccable soundness of character.

This summer, by viewing once more such a great number of his works collected at the «Grand Palais », we understand all the better what an astounding artist he was. In meeting this morning, at the foot of his tomb, we feel all the more painfully, in the communion of our regretful feelings, what a precious friend we have lost.

Hubert Ponscarme's lesson

In spring 1868, a delegation of members of the "Inscriptions et Belles Lettres" academy, eager to celebrate the jubilee of Joseph Naudet, who was a member of the guild, came to Hubert Ponscarme's medal engraving workshop. Naudet's colleagues, wanting to surprise him, had all chipped in twenty francs to buy him a work of art. So they asked the artist if he could quickly make a medallion of Naudet. "I could easily do it, answered Ponscarme; However I will not. If you want me to, I will make this medal, not quickly, but seriously, taking my time. It won't cost you anything. But only under one particular condition: that you will accept it as it will be, without any criticism."
The deal was accepted.
Naudet's medal is a great event in the history of French glyptic in the 19th century. It is since this piece that dates the decisive evolution of this genre. As nothing in an artist's carrier springs from nothingness, as this piece resulted from long hours of labour, as it represented for this artist not the outcome of his career, but a milestone, we shall now, before describing it's importance and detail what novelty it brought, summarize Ponscarme's previous achievements. François- Joseph Hubert Ponscarme was born on May 20th 1827 in Belmont, a small village in the Vosges region, the twelfth child of a peasant family. As he showed little inclination for country chores, his father thought of having him become a priest. The child didn't seem to take any more interest in that either.

A legend, which may have been invented for the sake of a well understood biography, claims that one fine morning, while gloomily pushing the ploughshare, the little boy discovered a medal at the effigy of Caracalla; He set himself to reproducing it by clay casting, or direct copy on hard stone. He tried to carve the figures, curves, ornaments. He was placed in the Sénaïde seminary, where he spent his spare time collecting stones and carving them. He then moved to the Chatel seminary.
He finally managed to escape and joined one of his brothers in Paris, a tutor at the Saint-Louis high school. Followed many years of deprivation and stubborn labour. Hubert attends Oudiné and De Galle's classes, both well-known medal engravers. But, overcome by misery, and after many months spent in hospital, he is forced to return to his native home. But his troubles have not disheartened him, he is determined to force his faith. A man of taste and kindness, doctor Haxo, notices him and supports him, gets him a departmental grant which allows him to return to the capital: 400 francs a year.
But in 1850, the French administration seemed in no hurry to send this meagre subsidy to the student, we have here a letter from Ponscarme to Doctor Haso: "Sir, he says, I beg you, hurry the mailing. I had to plead twenty cents having nothing left and having not eaten for the past 48 hours. My sheets are at the Mont Piété pawn shop. It's a very cruel situation being poor in Paris".

Thanks to Haxo and Oudiné, the grant is raised to six hundred francs, and two years later, Oudiné wrote. "My foresight has not deceived me. I am happy to announce that my disciple has just been officially commissioned a bust of his majesty by the State Ministry and the House of the Emperor."
Will this be the end of his struggle? No, but it is the dawn of better days. Once again, may our young readers be convinced that the path to glory is no bed of roses.
Certainly, the Vosgian master had experienced glory, but it was of little consequence to him. Indifferent to what did not relate to his work, all the rest, money, success, honour, did not appeal to him. The praising or critical opinions of his peers left him cold. It is only much later, two years before his death, at the entreaty of a foreign numismatist, that he conceded in giving a hundred medals and medallions to the Hamburg Museum. It is only in this faraway city that it is possible to have a global view of his works.

Ponscarme's immediate predecessor, his master Oudiné, admittedly a good man, of good understanding, was not an inventor. However, his teachings were highly valuable, no doubt more than his actual works, he wished to free himself from replica, and was undoubtedly fascinated by the Neo-Greek style. He was modest, and the best proof of this is that at the end of his career, he accepted to be influenced by the disciple he had trained himself and in turn took advice from the innovator.
Let's continue our incursion into the world of precursors. Under the Restauration of the monarchy, glyptic was prevailed by a group of pompously ceremonious artists. Michaut is the only exception. In a moment of divine inspiration, he conveyed in his medal at the effigy of King Louis the 18th, a wonder of elegance and clarity. Edmond About qualifies this piece in the following terms "When we throw this coin on a shop counter, we know quite well we are spending a master piece"
Prior to him, the spirited David d'Angers couldn't be left unmentioned. His series of medallions at the likeness of his peers represents the metallic version of romanticism, but David's tormented technique, a reflection of his soul, lacks the temperance best befitted to medal making. Going back a bit further into the past: individuals as Nicolas Briot, Warin; Mauger and Roettiers, deified the Sun king in the true expression of the epoch's overbearing style, as Duvivier did under Louis the 15th, but let us stop here at the medallions of the Revolution.
The men on the Revolution understood the importance of the medal's role. On the occasion of the liberation of the cities of Lille and Thionville, and the departure of the Hungarian troops, Louis David suggested to the Convention, during the session of the 26th of October 1792, commemorating these events by pressing a medal, and giving out a copy to every citizen of the two besieged cities.
"I hope, he added, that my suggestion to press these medals may be extended to every glorious actions of the Republic, as did the Greeks and the Romans who, through these metallic tokens, passed on to us not only the knowledge of these remarkable events, and the identity of the great figures of their time, but also the understanding of the evolution and improvement of their art."
All the news and current affairs of this period, was frantically pressed into medal; the locks of the Bastille, the bells of the convents, were all thrown into the melting pot. The medal became an instrument of war, of propaganda, as were the leaflet or pamphlet. The authors were none other that the king's engravers; They had merely changed sides, but one could still observe in their art certain habits, manners, a Greuze-like sentimentalism, which seemed out of place in 1790. At the time, Duvivier's kindness seemed old-fashioned; Augustin Dupré he too tried to wrap revolutionary symbolism in amiability, and went as far as making Madame Récamier's profile the monetary standard of the Revolution. A Roman prize was founded in 1803; two seats at the Institute were granted to engravers. The metallic history of Napoleon the 1st was prevailed by the systematic imitation of Greco-Roman art, the portrait of the conqueror emulating Julius Ceasar's features, and the medal makers were falling over each other trying to glorify the great man.

Decadence is quickened, and Galle remains the simple button carver of his early days. Apotheosis of virtuosity, degenerating of the arts. Here is, in a few words, the tendency which was in progress before the author of the Naudet medal. It was high time to react, to come back to Nicolas Briot and Warin, and most of all to the Master whom we haven't yet spoken of, the timeless portraitist of Novella Malatesta, of Cécile de Gonzague and Lionel d'Este, the Florentine (or Veronese), Pisanello. He was to the medal what Ucello or the adorable Gentile da Fabriano were to painting, and left us a legacy of medals which no-one has yet been able to match. He kept in mind the numismatic monuments of antiquity, drew from them his graceful shapes, the convex edges, the opposition in the directions of the profiles on both faces. But what a firm emphasis, a concision, an authority, such a subtle touch in the moulding of the profiles, in the stratification, such beautiful foreshortenings inscribed in the reverse sides!
He was who Ponscarme directly followed and related to.

In this state of debasement in which medals had fallen towards the beginning of the 19th century, Ponscarme reached back to the forgotten traditions of Italian Renaissance medal makers. He took up work at the point at which Pisanello had left it. He treated the medal not as a dry piece of jewellery, strictly ornamental, but as a distinct and living art form. He rose up against the driftings of his immediate predecessors who would roughly carve the shapes out of the polished surface. He softened the contours of the features, tried to convey through metal the suppleness of clay or wax, by modifying his chisel so as to resemble the carving tool used during antiquity, which they had subconsciously obtained by using pieces of bronze metal made smooth by extensive use.
Thanks to him, the flat backgrounds then took on the same matt hew as the relief parts. Ponscarme also lessened the relief of the effigy, which no longer protruded sharply, but rather blended into the surface creating a harmonious whole.
The Pisanello-like precision, purity and subtleness are brought back to life in Joseph Naudet's portrait. "Before, says M. Roger Marx, on the polished mirror-like surface, the composition stood out in a dull masse, and there was a totally illogical and unpleasant absence of coherence between the subject and the background. Ponscarme applies to medal making the same techniques used in relief sculpture, and achieves masterly success". This medallion constitutes a true revolution. The engraver had not simply unpolished the background in order to obtain unity; the gentleness of the relief contrasted cruelly with the usual exaggeration of dents and the harshness of the contours. More still, Ponscarme boldly rid himself of the useless frame rim ; Then, giving up the use of vulgar typographical letters, he discourteously handled the inscription, by adapting it's style to the context and varying it's disposition, thus taking on the ornamental role given to Arabic or Japanese writing and participating in the picturesque effect of the whole. "Under this influence which liberated us from the bonds of routine, the French school was transformed, developed a new enthusiasm for sincerity, poetry, grace, built courage, renewed the French style, appealed to spontaneity for inspiration, and to the direct observation of nature for a radiant and youthful renaissance". Once the first decisive thrust was given, young artists understood the previous lessons and old Oudiné's touching gesture, benefiting from his pupil's insight.
One must not imagine that this revolution brought on by Naudet's medal came suddenly. When examining carefully Hubert Ponscarme's works from it's beginning until 1867, one is convinced that the Naudet portrait was a milestone, and not a starting point. His own portrait already constituted a break off from David d'Angers' tradition. In this last picture, dated from 1848, a firm tendency to link the theme to the metal surface is already clearly noticeable. Oudiné, when he saw it exclaimed "It looks like a pen drawing by Ingres".

Other works, between 1850 and 1860, emphasize this liberating tendency. These are: woman with a bonnet, Mlle Gudin, The author's Brother, several memorial medals and the portrait of the Imperial Prince.
This leads us to recollect that Ponscarme, despite his anti-bonapartist views, worked for the regime he had fought, but kept an uncompromising eye. "The day before the unveiling of Napoleon the First's statue place Vendôme, the author of this piece, Augustin Dumont, thought of me and had me commissioned the memorial medal. He had admitted to the emperor that I was a republican". "Oh well, » answered Napoleon the 3rd, "So was I at one time". But Hubert Ponscarme had stayed a republican. This medal is too famous for any comment to be necessary; the effigy of the ruler is noble, yet truthful. Napoleon the 3rd awarded a medal to his portraitist.
Satisfied, for once, of the good impression he made, Ponscarme never again left the path he had chosen for himself. The imperial family portrait, aside from the exceptional technical achievement of uniting three faces into limited space and depth, is perfectly balanced; the engraver gave each overlapping profile its fair share of importance and there is a feeling of air and space surrounding the figures. The pictures of Louis Blanc, Jules Brame, Edgar Guinet are of equal worth. The thinker and utopian Ponscarme then conceived a bust personifying the Republic, which he then submitted as a coin project; It did not suit Thiers sense of caution, but appealed to Jules Ferry who accepted it as the medal for the European Museum foundation.
Ponscarme also executed the medal where are engraved the features of Charles the 3rd, Prince of Monaco. It's one of the most beautiful monetary tokens of the last century.
It would be monotonous and unecessary, this essay being sufficient in our opinion, to continue listing Ponscarme's works; Nevertheless, we could not leave out the breathtaking reverse side, both sturdy and solemn, of the Epidemics medals (1887); The method implemented in 1867 was irreproachably held up till the end. As soon as 1895, Ponscarme wanting to draw the most benefit from the contrasts obtained trough the alternating of light and shadow, took inspiration, as we have accurately observed, from the impressionists' study of colour. In these later works, protuberances had almost disappeared, without going as far as saying that it was the downfall of the line, one can nevertheless state that the medal had finally boiled down to a series of overlapping levels, harmoniously combined and dissolved, light running over it's surface, brushing upon the relief, shadows and hollows; vanishing in subtly nuanced hues. The background seems to retract, fading into the half-atmosphere of a hazy and immaterial dream.

From that day on, the bases for a new school of medal makers were set. We all know with what talent Yencesse or Alexandre Charpentier, Pierre Roche, MM. Drospy, Pommier, Dammam, took on and kept up the blazing torch passed on by the master, who died in 1903, aged seventy-three. The medal is undoubtedly the sharpest, most concise and succinct of graphic arts, and its continuity is now assured. Indeed, fresco crumbles, paint darkens and cracks. Stone Erodes and marble Venuses have reached our times only damaged and mutilated. But Athens, Syracuse, Marathon, Carthage, Florence, Paris and old France, come back to life thanks to the medal. Greek beauty survives on the staters of Agrigento, Salamina, Catania and Reggio "The bust outlives the city". The bronze medal, immortalizes long expired mythological concepts, hands us over twenty-five centuries of history, channels to our times all the splendour of this divine, legendary, human epoch. .


Art & Techniques

Medals and engraving (1987)

The apparition of glyptic, around the 18th century B.C.(1), or more specifically of Mesopotamian stamps and cylindrical seals engraved with a kind of spool (2)in hard fine grain stone, gave way to coin engraving while the development of commercial trade called for and eventually imposed the use of currency.

First in Asia Minor, then quickly spreading to the whole Mediterranean region which made up the Hellenistic world during the 6th century B.C., Greek coin making reached its most apex of its production of Antiquity. Being in essence a trading device, monetary samples thus became, from birth, works of art. Coins were obtained through to a hammering process (3), but unfortunately, we know very little about the technical means, obviously rudimentary, which the artists used to make their coins. Nevertheless, we can suppose that, aside from the spool mentioned earlier, some cutting tools similar to our chisel were already used. Still we owe to the Greek genius the still unmatched premises of numismatic art. However, medal making remained unknown throughout Antiquity and the Middle-Ages. We had to wait for the 15th century before a particularly inspired Tuscan artist, called Vittorio Pisano, better known as Pisanello, by no means an engraver, let alone a sculptor, but up to then a painter and mostly a fresco painter, created an amazing piece which took the shape of a small scale circular low relief, first moulded in wax, then cast (4) in Bronze. Of bold and skilful making, and bearing a rich and spiritual originality, these master pieces, the ripe fruit of the Renaissance, already withheld all the particularities of the art of medals, in the way the face and reverse complement each other, converse with one another.

In the manner of Pisanello's works, the cast and carved medallions by Germain Pilon and Guillaume Dupré are considered, owing to the splendour and quality of the portraits, amongst the most prestigious wonders of the French Renaissance; and more recently the great medallions by the talented David d'Angers, and the spiritual sketch-like portraits by Alexandre Charpentier. However, unlike Italy for example, cast medals will remain an exception in France, where pressed medals will continue to prevail.

Regarding numismatic technique and history, we discern three great periods:

  • The hammering period, from the origins to the 16th century;
  • The pendulum pressing period, from the 16th century to the 19th century;
  • The Coin pressing, finally, characterized since about 1830 to today by a steady increase in productivity.

Wishing to regulate and improve manufacturing, Henri II implemented the mechanization of the press by ordering in 1551, the import from Augsburg in Germany, and the fitting in all the royal workshops with a new set of equipment mostly made of rolling mills (in order to keep the width of the blades constant), of cleavers (to cut the moulds), and most of all, of a pendulum (5) of which the effectiveness lied in the striking power of a screw. Quickly implemented, these devices allowed the pressing of perfectly round coins and medals, all exactly identical.

In the meantime, it was soon possible to engrave in hollow, or to obtain an embossed inscription on the rim, thanks to the invention of the broken fellule (6). We probably owe mostly to the prevailing in France of the pressed medals, mentioned earlier, the survival of the practise of direct carving until today. However, the emergence during the second half of the 19th century of a mechanical engraving process used in the creation of models and original equipment, opened the way forward to the new numismatic age, the age of medals moulded for pressing. Conceived according to a process similar to the pantograph, this machine called "tour à réduire" (shrinking mill) (7), actually allows craftsmen, first of all sculptors, to reach the finalised monetary model or medal thanks to a scale model, a process which had up to then remained the exclusive privilege of steel engravers.

Usually, the engraving is then perfected with the use of chisels and cleavers, sometimes even files, scrapers and polishing stones. But the level of completion of a medal engraving depends on the engraver's tastes and sense of aesthetic. Anyhow, it's his skill and assurance, and the combined effects of the different tools, which will convey grace and freshness of execution to his work in a variety of sizes.

In the case of relief engraving, the engraver works on the positive version. The bradawl first hardened by thermal process (quenching), can then be pushed into a steel block; the template needed to press a medal or coin is thereby obtained. It should be noted that thanks to these techniques and to the pressing of a bradawl in a corner where, as opposed to the of a bradawl imprinted by casting, the engraver can, if he thinks it necessary in order to bring his work to completion, work in turn in hollow or relief as many times as he wishes.

Even though partly a business company, the "Administration des Monnaies et Medailles" (Medals and coins administration) is no less keen on promoting the artistic creativity through active patronage, that no other but the state would have the power to deliver in the current economic context. You simply have to consult the catalogues where the names and works of more than five hundred engravers and medal makers are listed, and consider the large number of exhibitions held in their walls, one of the lasts (but not least) having been devoted to "Contemporary French art trades" under the patronage of the S.E.M.A., to notice how brilliantly the Monnaie fills this position nowadays, thanks to the impulse of various leaderships, open to all kinds of aesthetic tendencies and individual personalities, and driven by the common desire to keep the art of medal making alive and well.

Emile ROUSSEAU. Chef engraver of the MONNAIES

(I) Previously applied to the art of engraving only, this word is now only used to speak of fine grain stones.
(2) A small mill of which the rotating motion is driven by a pedal activating a tool called bouterolle, which is made of an iron or copper shaft, fitted at one extremity with a bulge which once dipped in an oil mixed with diamond powder or emery, can file the material used by the artist for engraving.
(3) The piece of metal which was destined to receive the imprint of the engravings was placed between two corners carved in hollow, called pile and trousseau. The Pile was secured in a wooden block and the trousseau, left loose but firmly held by the coin maker, was hammered by the other, until the desired effect had been reached. In order to make the hammering easier, the metal piece could be carved in a lens shape beforehand, strongly heated or moulded.
(4) On the subject of medals, the casting process called "au sable" (with sand) or its more recent derivatives are the most commonly used. The mould made to contain the melted metal is made up of the combination of two imprints obtained by piling and packing over a modal usually made of plaster, an extremely fine kind of sand which eventually takes on the consistence of sandstone. This manufacturing technique usually implies that there will only be a limited number of editions.
(5) The first type of pendulum, which had long been driven manually, will only give way in 1840 to the so called friction pendulum, of which the rotating motion was activated by steam energy, and then electrically. A few copies of these can still be found in use at the Monnaie de Paris. The motor screw electro pneumatic press and the screw hydraulic press are its latest developments. As opposed to the pressing of coins which must be obtained in one hit only, the pressing of a medal requires several courses, due to the sharpness of the relief. Between two pressings, the metal, moulded by the pressing, has to be fired again. The completed medal is usually given a patina. It can also be gilded or silver-plated by electrolysis.
(6) Is called fellule the ring used to hold the metal piece as it is pressed, and give the medal or coin its perfectly round shape. When "simple", that is all in one solid piece, it is used to obtain a smooth rim, or fluted with transversal grooves. When "broken", nowadays done automatically, it is made up of two or more often three engraved segments held together by a crown.
(7) After the artist has created his plaster model, ideally three times as big as the medal to press, copies are made of it either in metal by galvanoplasty or in cast bronze, called "de cloche" (bell-like); or, as nowadays, in hard resin. All will be used to obtain, depending whether the motif is in hollow or relief, either a bradawl, or directly a pressing mould. When there is a bradawl, it will have to be pressed into a steel block, after having been thermally hardened, which will become the pressing mould needed for the manufacturing.
(8) One cannot forget to mention here particularly the exceptional action of Pierre Dehaye, director of the Monnaies et Médailles, from 1963 to 1984, founder of the French Medal Club, elected member of the "Academie des Beaux Arts" in 1975

The art and technique of the medal by M.Henri Dropsy member of th institut

In the art of pressed medals, we can consider two different processes: a medal from the 17th century, for example brings the burin to mind by the precision of its chiselling, whereas a fifty year old medal, by the suppleness of the model, rather evoques the sculptor's firmer chisel. These two different tools define two different techniques. To pass from the old one to the new one, a machine, inspired by the pantograph, had to be invented and progressively adjusted. The perfecting of the device took more than a century.

In 1729, La Condamine presented to the Science Academy a machine which could execute all kinds of regular and irregular contours, and another to carve various types of rosettes (1). In 1749, in the book "L'Art du Tourneur" (the Art of Milling), P. Plumier already mentions this invention "for the purpose of reducing profiles" but does not yet seem to be acquainted with the "tour à portrait" (portrait mill). In the midst of revolutionary torment, Bergeron in his " Manuel du Tourneur" (milling handbook), and after quoting Plumier's passage, declares that both machines submitted to the Science Academy by La Condamine " had presumably led to the invention of the tour à portrait". The first few attempts, having for a long time remained quite unsatisfactory, weren't found any practical use. But after several modifications were brought to the first version, Bulot the Younger completely changed the construction of the machine, simplifying it in order to obtain more accurate and reliable results. If we are not mistaken, Bulot's machine has lived on until our day and age; but at the "Musée du Conservatoire des Arts et Métiers" (Conservatory Museum of Arts and Trades), can be found a "tour à réduire et à graver" (reducing and engraving mill) by Ambroise Wohlgemuth, dated from 1820, which already bears the main characteristics of the ones we use today: two trays situated on a same level pulling both the model and the reduction along in a circular motion. Later on, on the 22nd of March 1837, Achille Colas registered a patent "for devices used for the copying and mechanical reproducing of any kind of sculpture and in any kind of material". He first built in 1847 a tour à réduire for medals, similar to Bulot's, to which he had brought a few improvements.

(1) Knurls and spurs

Around 1880, the knife used to engrave steel, which could not execute the work in one go, was replaced by a mill which thanks to its circular motion could guarantee the most accurate and rapid execution. The machine à réduire (reducing machine) was thereby complete, and its use has been expanding ever since. Let us now examine the influence of the tour à réduire on the evolution of the medal at the end of the 19th century. This new possibility medal makers were offered to execute their work in various materials, and in larger scale, instead of directly engraving on steel in the definite size, made it easier for them to obtain a less restrained overall effect, and enabled sculptors to also produce pressed medals, which would have been impossible without a mill.
Some even used models which were no more than sketches. These advantages, however, do come along with a few inconveniences, for engraving directly on metal has the advantage of being more precise and of sharper execution. Take for instance, not only the admirable medals of the XVIIth century, but also the highly decorative coins of the middle ages, executed in such a charming style by hollow engraving on metal. Alongside the art of engraving pressed medals, was invented five hundred years ago by the brilliant Pisanello, a new mean of expression: the cast medal. "Since de Syracusians, according to Elie Raufe, we have never come across such steadiness, such delightful and subtle patterns, such penetrating and vigorous elegance of expression"
Yet, this medal is slightly different from the coins engraved at Syracuse. It is obtained by casting in wax or plaster, which gives it a whole new aspect. The tour à réduire enabled the merging of two techniques which had remained totally separate up to then: casting and engraving; it automatically executes the bradawls and corner which the craftsman used to have to work with the chisel. The medal produced in this manner doesn't have the character of an engraved medal, but nevertheless keeps the aspect of the original, i.e. the model. Thanks to this device the sculptor/medal maker Alexandre Charpentier, who sometimes represented nude women with brutal truthfulness, produced from 1885 to 1900 portrait-tablets which are still considered amongst the best of his period. He would make average scale models, about twice as big as the final version. Following the reduction, the work fortunately conserved nearly all its original consistency.

independent spirit he was? One of the last to embody the "Murger Bohemia". He even went as far as living on a houseboat for a while. He claimed that the best way to give a medal a nice patina, was to have it undergo many manipulations. Therefore, he kept his pockets filled at all times But to return to our subject, another example of a piece which couldn't have existed without the tour à réduire, is the equestrian portrait of Ratier executed in 1884 by Frémiet. "One of the best and most worthy medals of the contemporary school", according to Henry Nocq. And Henry Nocq was an expert, being at the same time a medal maker and a goldsmith, as were his 18th century predecessors. He was also a great scholar, a regular visitor if libraries; he wrote many very serious books on bradawls in the goldsmith trade, on Pisanello, on Duvivier, etc; his medals made for pressing were scaled down, the ones made for casting withheld their original size.. Could they have been cast by the famous Antonin Liard, who died in 1940 at the age of 81, whose casts are still famous today? Probably. Having devoted himself to constant research, this excellent craftsman knew all the secrets on his difficult trade. Only absolutely perfect pieces were allowed out of his workshop. He has been known at times, in his constant quest of perfection, to correct some invisible flaw by hand with an engraving knurl.
Meanwhile, Tasset was executing and improving the works of many an engraver and sculptor. He had tried to expand this reducing process to the confection of plates used in post-stamp printing. Did these stamps have the same sharpness and fullness as the chisel engraved vignettes? We haven't had the chance to see these attempts with our own eyes, but direct engraving, is once again in our opinion preferable to anything obtained by mechanical or chemical reproduction.

Must I mention that in France, the arts of engraving aren't encouraged enough? Coins, stamps, bank notes, which pass on a daily bases in front of the eyes and through the hands of the public, and obtained by engraving, should be used to develop general good taste, and serve as tokens of the French genius abroad. On second thought, the machine often requires the use of engraving. Tasset, and his successor Hozanna have mechanically reduced among many others, the works of Chaplain, and it isn't unreasonable to mention that it would have been wise of the author to make the bradawl touch ups himself, instead of entrusting this task to the reducers, not that they weren't good engraving craftsmen, but they didn't always remain loyal to the author's intentions. The truth is, touch-ups must always be done by the artist who created the model; hence the need for medal makers, even when employing a machine, to have perfect knowledge of steel engraving techniques. But against our deepest intentions, let us not mention Ponscarme's memory lightly. This great artist, even though he created some highly sensitive and remarkable models for the use of the "tour à réduire" only, was capable, when he thought it necessary, to perfect and complete his work with a chisel. Indeed, his works were as truthful as was his character. Of uncommon straightforwardness, he was unfortunately equally awkward when it came to polishing his reputation or backing up his students in front of an examination jury. Consequently, they had written on the door the workshop he directed: "This road does not lead to Rome." If one considers that this joke was the first thing read by new arrivals at the door of the premises, where the attendants were supposed to be preparing themselves for the Roman contest, one may find it quite witty. We might add that Ponscarme has always kept a cold head, even when impressionism prevailed.

This art form, which eventually won him over, did no keep him however from training many medal makers who eventually left their mark on other artistic currents. Among them, honour to whom honour is due, was Roty whose "sower" coin made him forever famous. By studying 18th century art, he most likely drew his inspiration from the charming soft-carved illustrations by Moreau, Boucher, Gravelot, Eisen, Marillier, and also from medals by Jean Duvivier who, following in Mauger's footsteps, was keen on representing picturesque truthfulness, and dared to use real perspective and the attributes of painting. Roty exercised a paramount influence on his peers of the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. Atmosphere is sought after, faraway landscapes disappear into the fog, skies cloud up, figures blend into backgrounds which progressively start filling up with detail. Medals became like small paintings, intermediates between sculpture and painting, and if the relief remains rather thin, that is because the machine wasn't yet powerful or accurate enough to reduce strong embossment. The group under the influence of Roty abandoned the steel engraving technique, in opposition to medal makers of the beginning of the 19th century, who were so eager to reach technical supremacy in engraving, they ended up forgetting all about artistic expression. Unquestionably, it has always been necessary for the artist to be the owner of his trade. Nowadays, it is also necessary for him to be the owner of his machine. It is available to him at all times, and can be used soundly or badly depending on his knowledge of the machine's possibilities. Should there be a difference in scale too great between the model and the reduction, it would result in an exaggerated shrinking of details, which once scaled down are no longer adapted to the measuring of eye and hand. Or else, should the machine be wrongly set; should the pin skimming over the large scale model and the mill engraving the bradawl not be set at the exact same angle and proportions, it would result in the thinning or thickening of the shapes. All in all though, the tour à réduire did open the way to a new age of medal making, yet chisel engraving shall always conserve its prevailing position in the techniques of modern model making. Our generation which has seen the birth, and now witnesses the expansion, of the new technique brought on by mechanization, has also known in its youth the old traditions of the trade. These two techniques lived side by side for a while, and then as time went on, the new replaced the old almost entirely. Thus, in my father's workshop, J-B. Emile DROSPY, we still proceeded for certain tasks as did the engravers of the 15th century.

A highly detailed study was carved concavely. From this study an imprint was taken. We then obtained a steel relief subject. This relief once corrected, carved and set, was pressed into a bloc. The subject took once again the shape of a concave steel surface. The inside was filed to the desired depth, the inscription was executed with the help of letter stamps which were hammered, that is pressed, one next to the other. The hollow motif thus finished and cast made up the corner. Until 1870, when the pendulums became strong enough to press entire medals, including the letters, we still, even for a small-scale pattern, continued to first press the subject, then polish the background, and finally hammer the letters. This long and meticulous work demands from the craftsman adroitness, good drawing skills and impeccable eye sight. Most of the time, his eye closely pressed to the magnifying glass, nervously gripping the chisel in his right hand, the engraver needs to summon his full attention, and requires abundant light. That is why, by the way, they tend to nest in the upper-floors of buildings. They seek, preferably, those beautiful 17th century houses of the "Marais" quarter, still numerous in the "rue Beaubourg" and the "boulevard Beaumarchais". The "bourgeois" had abandoned them, giving way to industrious craftsmen. Against the window, stands an elaborate workbench, where each craftsman in his own booth, sits in front of a cast iron ball, hardening the steel among a clutter of tools, chisels, shears, bradawls, oiling stones, magnifying glasses. In the evening, a lamp is placed in the middle, surrounded by water filled globes to condense the light.

In J-B Emile Drospy's workshop, in the back facing the window, gently purred the lathe. Electricity had not yet been installed into the buildings; a painstaking man would spend the whole day, stepping on the pedal, putting gears and belts into motion. Once the reduction was finished, it had to be pressed in order to obtain the corner which would then be used as the hammering tool. It was in Villemin's workshop, "rue des Coutures-Saint-Gervais" in the "Marais", that the engravers went to execute this task. He would forge steel blocs, cast them, fire them, and rent out the powerful pendulums which his clients needed for replicating and pressing. They found other partners, firstly the reduction maker Janvier on "rue de Montmorency", who was one of the first to add a drill to the lathe, and Combet on "rue du Temple", a skilled craftsman who used to carry out delicate tasks, i.e. the thin border which sometimes lines the medal. Inexhaustibly talkative, with his white beard and long dark blouse, he was the kind of conscientious craftsmen who loved his trade, and was always on the lookout of anything he may still ignore. Would you forgive me for regretting that this concern for meticulous work is so rare today?

The fault may be imputed to the machine which takes on all the effort, it should be reminded today that man can only achieve true fulfilment through what is acquired at this cost. We must by all means, strive to get young people to develop the same taste for perfection. At the "Ecole des Beaux Arts", where is bred tomorrows generation, we try to teach the young medal makers, as they toil to achieve their ideal conception in each of their productions, to use all the possible resources of their talent and trade. They must knowledgeable enough to face the constant problems they will have to solve, which vary infinitely. To succeed, one needs to acquire extensive knowledge of the principles which rule medal making. First of all, it is mandatory to consider composition and expression, essential qualities which are necessary to the intelligence of the piece, and to the emotion which it should stir in the observer's soul. And most of all, our youth mustn't be mistaken on the difficulties, and nobility specific to the art they practise.

One of our former Perpetual Secretaries, Quatremère de Quincy, brought them to light in this very spot on the 6th of October 1821, by reading this note which he devoted to Benjamin Duvivier:

« The art of composing medals consists in reducing to the finest detail every subject, action, picture, in order to bring to light, not the insignificant part of the whole, but the whole all clearly represented by only a part. The mistake of some modern schools of this kind, was to believe that a medal should look like a miniature painting… As large as a medal's surface may be, it's still one of the smallest spaces a composition could occupy; and, paradoxically, it seems it is nearly always the most extensive and plentiful subjects one is asked to reproduce. Thus the obligation of the artist to grasp, in each subject, the pattern or emotion which constitutes it's central or main point. Consequently, this skilful system of abbreviation brings each composition back to it's simplest expression, of moral and physical values; but also one has the obligation to attribute to each character and figure, it's value in this ideal language of which they become the symbols; And these values consist in majesty of shape, grandeur of style, and energy of character". It could not have been put into better words, and the medal maker, truly devoted to his trade, who aligns his hand and thoughts with these excellent conceptions, is all the more likely to do well.


Hubert PONSCARME - See his biography

Alexandre CHARPENTIER - See his biography

Jean-Baptiste Emile DROPSY - See his biography

Henry NOCQ - See his Biography

Alphée / Henri DUBOIS - See his Biography

Frederic de VERNON - See his biography

Henry DROPSY - See his biography

Henri BOUCHARD - See his biography

Andre SCHWAB - See his biography

Maurice DELANNOY - See his biography

Louis-Eugène MOUCHON - See his biography

Ovide YENCESSE - See his biography

Eugène-André OUDINE - See his biography

Henri-Auguste-Jules PATEY - See his biography

Paul Marcel DAMMANN - See his biography

Pierre ROCHE - See his biography

Jean-baptise DANIEL-DUPUIS - See his biography

Louis-Oscar ROTY - See his biography

Victor PETER - See his biography

Artists and works by Henri Classens (1930)

French contemporary medal makers can be divided into five groups, according to their inclinations. These groups do not constitute an absolute truth, indeed, some artists belong to several groups; but aside from being greatly justified, they enable us to get a clearer picture of contemporary medal making in France. We shall therefore study in the following order:

  • the official school
  • landscapers and genre scene authors
  • Ponscarme's school
  • decorators and constructors
  • the independents


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