Cara/Andrea here, and today I am musing on an often overlooked genre of art—the portrait and commemorative medal, or medallion—which can offer a unique and fascinating perspective on history. The inspiration comes from a podcast done by a good friend of mine, Dr. Stephen Scher, in conjunction with the recent wonderful exhibit at the Yale University Art Gallery on “The Critique of Reason—Romantic Art from 1760-1860.”
Steve possesses one of the finest collections in the world of Renaissance medallions (and a notable array of Regency-era medallions) and he is an expert in the field. (His impressive career in art includes serving as the Chairman of the Art History department at Brown University and a curator at the Metropolitan Museum in NYC.) I found his short talk on Napoleon and his use of the medium for “propaganda” so engaging that I thought all of you would enjoy it too!
But first, a bit of background on the art of the medallion. Strictly speaking, a medallion is round object that has been cast, sculpted, stamped or otherwise formed—usually out of some form of metal— with an image or words. The “main” side is called the obverse, and the “back” side is called the reverse. While some smaller medallions are meant to be worn, the genre about which I’m discussing are often referred to as “table medals.” They are usually 3-4 inches in diameter, and despite their small size, can speak volumes about the era in which they were created.
According to Wikipedia, the first known medallion was awarded by Alexander the Great to High Priest Jonathan of the Hebrews in thanks for his military aid. Roman and Medieval times saw the art flourish, with rulers and influential people in society commissioning these small works of art to give as gifts to friends and political allies.
But it was during the Italian Renaissance that the art form rose to new heights. Prominent artists of the era created many exquisite images for their patrons, both portraits, which convey a great deal about the personality and sense of importance of the subject, and allegorical scenes, which also give a fascinating look at the subtle messages of power and political jockeying that lay beneath the surface.
The early 1800s saw a resurgence in the art of the medallion. Napoleon understood how what a useful propaganda medium it was and used the notable artist Jean-Louis David to spread his messages across Europe. David is credited with being the foremost practitioner of the time, and after the fall of the Emperor he turned out a large array of ‘celebrity” portraits of the era—including Alexandre Dumas and Eugene Delacroix—which were very popular collectibles among the fashionable set.
Britain also struck its fair share of medallions. A famous example is the commemorative one given to all the sailors who participated in the Battle of Trafalgar. And following suit in the celebrity field, the Art Union League of London commissioned a set of 29 bronze medallions depicting well-known British artists and architects, including William Hogarth.
I hope you enjoy Steve’s podcast. He’s opened my eyes to the beauty of medallions. I love the detailed artistry, and if I had deep pockets, I’d love to collect some of the Regency-era one done by David. What about you? Do you like them? If you could collect anything, what it be? Antique cameos? Fountain pens? Baseball cards? Please share!