The Field of MEDALLIC ART – small M, small A, is a French art. The first practitioners were French artists, as the leading medallic artists today are French.
Medallic Art – capitol M, capitol A, the company – was founded by two French brothers working in New York City. Despite the fact Henri Weil, the oldest, was born here in America, Felix Weil, the youngest, was born back in France as the parents traveled back and forth in a ceramic business.
In studying and handling medals of the world for fifty years, I have developed a sense of nationalistic traits common to all medals of one country. Italy, for example, has the most talented medallic artists. Design of medals by Italian artists rise above all others.
At a speech given at a memorial service for Italian-born Marcel Jovine, I repeated that statement that I felt Italy produced the finest medallic artists. “There must be something in the drinking water in Italy to produce such superb artists,” I said. The audience broke out in thunderous applause as I realized most were Italian descendents or supporters.
Certainly some credit can be given to the national mint in Rome, the Zecca Mint. It maintains a school for coin and medal designers. Artists who wish to advance a career in the field, travel to Rome to study at the Zecca. American Elizabeth Jones, ultimately to be Chief Engraver of the U.S. Mint, was just such student at the Zecca.
While student work is often set aside for most artists in their own possession, Elizabeth tells me the Zecca school retains all the models by all the students at the Zecca. I wonder if these are used as study models by later students. They are trained to recognize good medallic art – study what has been created in the past – and to emulate only the best techniques in their own work.
German artists are technical machinists. Long noted for producing the best hand engravers, German artists continued to embrace hand engraving. Even after the French developed oversize modeling and pantographic reduction to cut dies, Germans still continued to cut their dies by hand.
One hand engraver, Fritz Eue, immigrated to America in 1926 after a successful career in his native Germany, cutting dies for four medal maker firms. It is said he could cut a die in two hours, complete. Further he could cut a die in cameo, in raised relief as well as incised, in negative relief. He could hand engrave a die, or a hub, positive or negative, whatever was needed.
Eue’s work was typical of German medallic artists. While immensely satisfactory it didn’t rise to the artistic quality of Italian artists’ work.
Also Germans are noted for their medal making equipment. They invented the knuckle-joint press, now used for coining press technology employed throughout the world. German firms today produce the finest coining and medal making equipment.
British medallic artists’ work is stiff, prim and proper, somewhat like the British people themselves. Yet some of the greatest coin and medal artists are British. Thomas Simon (1618-1665) is an early example. In 1663 he engraved a pair of dies whose struck piece became known as the “Petition Crown.”
Simon was in competition with a Dutch artist, Jean Roettier, for the position of engraver at the Royal Mint. To prove his competence for the position he created a large silver crown with two lines of lettering on the edge of the piece pleading for the king, who was to make the decision, to appoint him over a Dutchman.
Despite a stunning portrait of the king on the obverse, the king made a political decision and Roettier got the job. But Simon’s work rose above anything Roettier ever produced.
While trained in Italy, the greatest British coin and medal artist of all time was Benedetto Pistrucci (1784-1855). He created the iconic image of Saint George slaying the dragon, which became symbolic on British coins.
Pistrucci is also known as the engraver of the Waterloo Medal. Commissioned in 1815, he completed it thirty years later in 1845. It was so large – four and a half inches – they couldn’t strike it for fear of breaking the die. (It was issued as an electroform cast, and later struck in a reduced size).
British artists are also known for their family of coin and medal artists, the Pingos and the Wyons are examples. All of which held positions at the Royal Mint in London, but who also had family members who created medallic work outside the Mint.
The French artists, however, made medallic art a genre equal to painting and sculpture, and traced, as early as 1825, to the work of David d’Andres (1788-1856). His portraits were in relief in a size larger than any medal, eight to ten inches. Originally replicated by foundry casts, they were readily made as galvano casts when this technology became available, mid-century.
David d’Andes was followed by Herbert Ponsdcarme (1827-1903) who is considered the Father of the Modern Art Medal. His 1863 medal for the Academy of Inspiration for Beaux-Letters bearing the portrait of Joseph Nadet earned this title.
In the 1880s came a flood of French artists who not only practiced the art of large size medallic models (a la David d’Andres), but also adopted the new technology of pantographic reduction machines to reduce their models to a size that could be struck as medals.
The names of the French artists who became active in this period are legion: Jules Chaplin, Alexandre Charpentier, Pierre Dautel, Georges Dupre, Jean Daniel-Dupis, Rene Gregoire, Henry Nocq, Victor Peter, Georges Prud’Homme, Louis Oscar Roty, Ernest Tasset, Emile Vernier, Frederic Vernon, Ovide Yencesse.
Many of these artists embraced the technique of modeling oversize, having their models made into a hard metal pattern (by electrogalvanic casting), then mounting in a die-engraving pantograph cutting a die to be used for striking their images in medallic form.
Also at this time these artists experimented with applying a patina to their art medals. They used the same chemicals and techniques employed for their large size sculpture in-the-round. Worked just as well for for small size medals.
Here are the reasons therefore why medallic art is considered a French art:
- The Paris Mint has struck coins and medals since the 1400s. It has been a leader in advancing minting technology and attracting the best engravers noted for their talent.
- Indeed, the Paris Mint has a training program – not like the school at the Zecca Mint in Rome – but more of on-the-job training program that has been in progress since 1866.
- The Paris Mint has encouraged medallists of the world to submit their models for possible striking; during its heyday in this program, administered by Piere De Hay was buying one new model a day to place into production.
- The French artists invented the technique of modeling oversize and having these models pantograhically reduced to cut dies for striking.
- Victor Janvier, a Frenchman, began improving the reducing machine and patents his machine 1899; became the industry standard.
- Louis Oscar Roty trains medalists in this technique of oversize modeling; his most notable student is Victor Brenner, from New York, who travels to Paris twice in a four-year period to learn from French masters.
- A French art critic, Roger Marx created the Societe des Amis de la Medaille francaise (the Society of French Medallic Art) in 1899, the first art medal series. It was copied by similar groups in Europe and America (the Circle of Friends of the Medallion).
- The French created Federation International des la Medaille (FIDEM) immediately after World War II. This international organization of medallic artists sponsors exhibitions at their biannual conventions.
- An small number of private minters, notably, Artrus Bertrand, and others, prosper in Paris striking medals for private customers.
- At the exhibition of international contemporary medallic art at the American Numismatic Society in 1910 (IECM), 49 French artists sent exhibits almost equaling the number of Americans (56) where the exhibition was held. Frenchman Louis Oscar Roty had more items on exhibit (82) than any other artist. Five of the top ten exhibitors were French.
In an unusual conflux of words and names, the French Head, symbol adopted for Medallic Art Company by Clyde C. Trees in 1934 – but named for its creator, Daniel Chester French – continues the French Connection.
Thus the art the company produces is French and the symbol for the company is – French.