Editor’s note: In his July monthly Coin World cover feature, noted medal expert David T. Alexander traces the path of the Art Nouveau and Art Deco design movements through the beautiful designs of European and American art medals. This is one of a series of articles from this feature that will appear online at CoinWorld.com.
Read other posts in the series:
- Art Nouveau versus Art Deco: New art style rises from ashes of war
- Coming to America: Art Deco medallic style makes its way across the Atlantic Ocean
- Legendary, stylish travel ships SS Champlain, SS Normandie among Art Deco medal subjects
- With U.S. Mint lacking stature, private mints advance American medallic art with items honoring GM, NBC
- Art Deco style thrives as Society of Medalists releases fine-art medals during 20th century
- New York World's Fair signals decline of Art Deco medallic style that would disappear during World War II
French medallic art remained, as it had long been, the bellwether and model for the entire western world.
The first significant medals of the infant United States, the Comitia Americana series, were entirely French through their artists, designs and striking by the Monnaie de Paris, the Paris Mint.
The French Revolution that burst onto the world stage in 1789 began to free the French medal from the paralyzing rigidity of the tightly regulated medallic histories of Kings Louis XIV and Louis XV. The last years of Louis XVI and the appearance of the First Republic loosened many of the official restraints on medallic expression.
The swelling flood of medals chronicling the meteoric career of Napoleon brought some flexibility, but still retained many neoclassical forms. His varied successors, the restored Bourbon, the July Monarchy of Louis Philippe, the reign of Napoleon III, and both Second and Third Republics continued to rely heavily on classic imagery and restrained style.
Under this mind-set, medals were supposed to be round, displaying raised edges surrounding idealized portraits and allegorical scenes, employing figures frequently attired (or not) as ancients. Such classic images might include the nude portrayal of the victorious Napoleon that caused him much irritation, or an idealized upright figure of the gout-crippled King Louis XVIII, whose obesity made it difficult for him to stand at all.
Medals of Napoleon III (1852 to 1870) and of the early Third Republic were still mired in static classicism, which generally ignored the rapid industrialization of France and neighboring countries. However, introduction of the Janvier reducing machine set the stage for rapid change in medal design and production.
Using this specialized lathe, artists could now create their designs as large (10-inch and greater diameter) models, which could then be reduced to precise die size by the new machine. The days were coming to an end in which artists spent their careers hunched over steel die stock laboriously cutting their designs by eye and in reverse into the steel.
Dramatic entrance of a new art form: Art Nouveau