The Concept of the Portrait Medal
The portrait medal is a tactile memory, a portable work of art. These medals offer a genuine, multi-faceted vision of the society in which they were produced and they imply the desire to honour someone. Monarchs and their Heirs may have been the first to be depicted on medals, but the concept gradually spread to the well-to-do classes and eventually to a wider public.
The Medal and Rafael Masó: Eclecticism, Art Nouveau and Art Deco
The success enjoyed by the medal between 1880 and 1935 coincides with the birth and death of the Catalan architect Rafael Masó, whose life spanned the period of the flowering of medal art.
- Birth of Masó in Girona
- Renewal of the medal
New solutions for creating an impression of depth with a minimum relief, and producing soft, contrasting, or evanescent outlines.
1906. Art Nouveau
- Masó graduates as an architect
- Consolidation of the medal
Predilection for organic, asymmetric lines.
1935. Art Deco
- Death of Masó in Girona
- Decline of the medal
Art Deco gave the medal a different, more geometrical expression, with neat fields, and clear-cut fonts highlighting the legends.
In general, the honoured person was portrayed on the obverse and their merits were depicted on the reverse, in a sort of sequential message. As an example, we will explain three different medals of Richard Wagner, always shown in profile and with serene facial expression. Each medal resolves style, fonts, formats, and evocative elements in different ways.
Ovide Yencesse's medal, shows Wagner seated on a canapé with his right hand on his lapel, gazing pensively towards the horizon.
Franz Xaver Pawlik placed the composer within a medallion surrounded by Secession-style symbolic elements:
The female harpist evokes music; the laurel stands for success, and the mask for opera.
Arnold Hartig's medal is more austere and clear-cut in composition, with flat lines and prominent volumes.
The Official Portrait: Monarchies and Republics
One of the elements used to symbolise monarchies has always been official coinage. Official coinage usually bears the profile of the King or Queen on the obverse and the monetary value of the coin on the reverse.
- MONARCHS -
They were usually depicted in profile, accompained by their attributes, posed in a serene, dignified, authoritarian manner.
The royal couple or their descendents were sometimes depicted: Queen in front of the son, King in front of his consort.
In the late 19th century, medals bearing portraits of the monarchs proliferated as national symbols, often produced in the more accessible form of pendants.
- REPUBLICS -
The new republics sought to establish their own identifying images and, taking their cue from the French Marianne, reproduced serene, beautiful, distinguished female figures drawn from the imagination.
- HISPANIA -
Antoni Parera personified Hispania as a proud, serene allegory:
The Crown to represent the Kingdom of Castile and a Classical Gown for Tradition. A Sword in her hand, as Power, and a Lion by her side as Bravery. Finally, a Spanish coat of arms against a floral background meaning Celebration.
-THE BELGIAN DYNASTY-
Belgium produced numerous medallists, who often portrayed the members of the Belgian royal family: Godefroid Devreese had a prolific production of this type of piece, such as the plaquette entitled The Belgian Dynasty: Four Queens of Belgium, showing the monarchs who had reigned since Belgium had asserted its independence.
In The Belgian Dynasty: Four Kings of Belgium, the busts overlap in right - left profile, in such a way that when the two plaquettes ara placed side by side, the kings and their consorts appear to look at each other, thus forming an attractive companion set.
The War Medal
The war-inspired commemorative medal was used as much to encourage soldiers as to honour heroes, denounce the enemy, remember the fallen and, above all, to transmit hope and patriotic exaltation.
Centenary of the Siege of Girona (1909) by Genaro CastellsRafael Masó Foundation
- ST. NARCISSUS AND THE PENINSULAR WAR IN SPAIN -
On 3rd January 1810, King Ferdinand VII decreed that a medal be minted to honour the exemplary bravery of the citizens of Girona during the French siege of the city the previous year.
One hundred years later, at the request of Girona City Council, the Spanish Cabinet agreed to issue a commemorative medal in gold, silver (for officers) and bronze (for the troops) to mark the centenary of the Girona sieges. The medal depicted the coat of arms of the "Immortal City" and a reproduction of the cross originally awarded to the defenders of Girona. Narcissus, patron of Girona, is depicted standing in the centre.
Death Selling Passage Tickets (1915) by Karl GoetzRafael Masó Foundation
- DEATH IN SERVICE OF PROPAGANDA -
This German medal did not merely commemorate a historical event; it also influenced the course of history, impelling the United States to join the First World War.
During the War, the Allies blockaded ports, and Germany, in retaliation, declared that all vessels entering British waters would be sunk without warning. Great Britain and the neutral US did not take the threat seriously and on 7th May, the Lusitania, was torpedoed causing 1.198 deaths (128 Americans).
A few months later, the German medallist Karl Goetz cast the medal depicting a personified figure of Death selling boarding tickets for the Lusitania as a satire of the hypocritical policy of carrying passengers on a ship laden with arms.
"La Fleur de l'Orphelin", medal (1917) by Godefroid DevreeseRafael Masó Foundation
- WAR ORPHANS -
In Belgium, during the First World War, benevolent schemes emerged to assist orphans and defenceless infants.
The National War Orphans Charity organised campaigns such as La Fleur de l'Orphelin (1917) - owners of flowering plants donate their bloom to be sold in aid of the disadvantaged.
Cards were also put on the market, to be exchanged for a small pendant by Belgian medallist Godefroid Devreese, with an orphan girl selling flowers on the obverse.
Nourishment for Children (1916) by Godefroid DevreeseRafael Masó Foundation
- HELPING THE NEW-BORN -
The Nourishment for Children (1916) evokes the plight of orphaned infants who owed their lives to wet nurses.
The keyhole-shaped piece shows a seated woman nursing a baby.
The proceeds from the sale of the two formats, a plaquette or a smaller pendant, went to the orphans' charity.
Symbolism in the Religious Portrait Medal
All cultures have regularly employed symbols, many of which are still used today to identify ideas or values. In the period spanning the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the eminently Western discipline of medal art frequently represented Christian themes.
The details in these portraits help to transmit the desired message by showing, for instance, the person in a praying position or accompanied by a religious attribute such as the Cross.
The religious medal explains without words, narrates without writing, and identifies without legends.
In the spirit of the late 19th century Catalan "Renaixença" (Rebirth) movement, conservationists ran a campaign to reconstruct the monastery of Santa Maria in Ripoll and restore it to its 11th century splendour under the legendary Abbot Oliva. The monastery was re-consecrated on 2 July 1893, on which occasion this medal was issued.
La Monnaie de Paris: A Medal Production Centre
La Monnaie de Paris (Paris Mint) was founded by Charles the Bald in the 9th century. It was the main manufacturer of both official and private medals until the 1880s when the Third Republic passed a law to free minting rights. It was in a position to select the finest artists, such as Oscar Roty, Jules-Clément Chaplain, Georges Dupré, Frédéric de Vernon and Émile Monier, chosen to illustrate the cover of the catalogue with the Art Deco-style "Virgin Mary at Prayer".
Many great artists have made medals portraying the figure of Joan of Arc as a National Symbol. Oscar Roty's dynamic Art Nouveau composition depicts her, engulfed by the flames and casting her eyes to heaven, encircled by the legend: /MA · MISSION · ETAIT / DE · DIEU · /
In the late 19th century, the renewal of medal art generated a new set of contemporary allegories used to exalt personal virtues, as in Romanticism and Symbolism.
Portraits and Figures
Most medal portraits were executed in profile. Three types can be distinguished: The "Bourgeois" as a faithful reproduction, the "Romantic" to highlight a particular quality and the "Allegorical" to exalt beauty and evanescence.
Series of portraits:
La Monnaie commissioned French medallist Ernesta Robert-Mérignac to make a series of plaquettes entitled "Coiffes des provinces de France", using female portraits to personify places, with each one showing the bust of a young woman in her regional costume on the obverse, and a well-known feature of the same on the reverse.
The Female Figure: Sensuality and Beauty
The Male Figure: Vigour and Strength
During the 19th century male nudes were still considered too obscene and, compared to female nudes, remained rare in medal art.
Cherubs and Infants: Grace and Candour
Cherubs are often represented as gentle, lovable little angels, associated with purity and innocence; and the innocence of small children is often used to personify truth.
New Year, New Medal:
The end of the old and the start of the new
New Year medals often depicted an elderly figure at the end of his life and an infant personifying a new life to come.
The Intimate Portrait: From Family to Friends
Apart form serial production, the medal also lent itself to limited editions, specially to the domestic circle.
Heinrich Kautsch dedicated this plaquette to his friend, the sculptor Albert Bartholomé showed on the right side of the piece, wearing a cap and an artist's smock, with his arm reaching out to the left, holding a hammer in his hand as a symbol of his trade.
The medallist used his trademark Art Nouveau font, much in vogue at the time, with gentle, rounded characters and a certain undulating movement.
In the late 19th century, and especially in the early 20th, an increasing number of animal-themed medals appeared. The medals were designed as awards for shows or competitions, usually with the head or figure of an animal on the obverse.
The Neapolitan Giacomo Merculiano had a large production of animal-themed drawings. He made the official medal for the Club Saint Hubert du Nord with a hunting dog in right profile shown in an elegant resting position, a view of the city in the background, and the name of the association at the top.
The reverse shows the same dog in action, attentive to its prey, on the esplanade where the first dog show was held in Lille in 1894.
In 1915, the Rural Association of Uruguay commissioned Eusebi Arnau to make a series of medals (issued in gold, silver, and bronze, in different weights and diameters) for the Montevideo National Exhibition of Champion Farm Animals to be used as awards in the horse, cattle, swine, goat, and poultry categories. The medals all had the same obverse, but each reverse depicted different species. The manufacturer was Tammaro, the main metal workshop in Uruguay, founded in 1888 by Luis Tammaro.
The Renewal of the Medal
From The Second Third of the 19th Century to the outbreak of the First World War, Europe was the epicentre of the stylistic renewal and Art Nouveau played a leading role. Such renewal was not limited to the adoption of a new ornamental vocabulary, rather it was part of a much wider movement towards modernity. The medal was seen as an extrapolation of bas-relief art, monetary art and engraving.
The task of the artist-medallist is to achieve equilibrium between the different but complementary functions of obverse and reverse.
It is actually quite unusual, however, to find medals with inter-responding sides; a noteworthy exception is a work by Belgian medallist Godefroid Devreese entitled "Food Parcel for an Imprisoned Soldier".
On the obverse, the forearm of the benefactress appears to go through the hatch on the cell door, while the soldier on the reverse shows his thanks kissing her hand. The two sides of this medal come together in a dialogue and continuity.
The Studio (1901)Rafael Masó Foundation
- FRANCE INITITATES THE RENEWAL OF THE MEDAL -
The emancipation of the medal began in France with a work that marked a rupture with the past: the effigy of Joseph Naudet (1867) by Hubert Ponscarme.
He introduced 3 innovations:
- He eliminated the rim encircling the field of the medal.
- He abandoned the usual practice of polishing the background.
- He chose an appropiate typeface to the subject of each medal.
Louis Pasteur, Microbiologist and Chemist (1892) by Louis Oscar RotyRafael Masó Foundation
Louis Oscar Roty, also contributed to the transformation process of the medal, by modifying its form and content:
- He questioned the round format and opted for the plaquette.
- He avoided the notion of "ideal symmetry".
- He integrated landscape into the background of the composition.
- He treated the legend of the medal intertwining the text among foliage.
Operator Striking Medals (1902) by Alexandre CharpentierRafael Masó Foundation
- MEDALLISTS PLAYING A KEY ROLE IN THE FRENCH DECORATIVE ARTS RENEWAL -
Alexandre Charpentier (1856-1909) defined himself as a bas-relièfeur. He was one of the few artists to apply medal art to other disciplines and to enlarge its range of possibilities.
Charpentier's medal art alternates between smooth execution and less elaborate finishes, with softer contours giving way to an unexpected "non-finito".
Eugène Rombaut, School Inspector (1902) by Fernand DuboisRafael Masó Foundation
- THE MEDAL IN BELGIUM -
In the 1890s a change in style occurred. It was reflected in composition, form, and the introduction of new decorative motifs.
Godefroid Devreese is undoubtedly the greatest medallist of the time in Belgium.
Fernand Dubois thanks to his training as a sculptor gave a notably sculptural quality to the medals he created. He is considered one of the main exponents of Art Nouveau despite the fact that his medals do not actually qualify as Art Nouveau objects.
The medal was placed in an independent category at the World Fair held in Brussels in 1910, considering the medal as a work of art in its own right.
The Great Moment of the Catalan Medal
It occurred in the late 19th century and the early 20th century, until the onset of the Spanish Civil War.The Girona-born numismatist Joaquim Botet was one of the remarkable group of top-level intellectuals and historians coming out of late 19th century in Girona. He belonged to the generation preceding the new group of intellectuals - the architect Rafael Masó was a member of this group as well.
In 1888 a new style was slowly emerging, combining neo-Gothic and faux-medieval features with exotic elements. This was the first step towards an aesthetic renovation. The emergence of the great Catalan Art Nouveau sculptor and medallist Eusebi Arnau and a few years later, Antoni Parera, meant that the Catalan medal had achieved the same quality as its French counterpart.
The high priest of Catalan Art Nouveau was undoubtedly Antoni Gaudí with his architectural works and furniture, but not medals, at least as far as we know. This medal style in Catalonia did not have the same force or enjoy the same freedom of expression as, for example in France. The works by sculptor Josep Llimona come closest in quality to those found in France.
A more international event was the advent of Art Deco, with its denuded forms, hieratic figures, and penchant for the geometric. Fewer Art Deco medals were produced in Catalonia. So the Great Moment of the Catalan Medal culminated with the Art Nouveau movement and continued to exist in a weaker form alongside Noucentisme and Art Deco throughout the 1910s and 1920s.
In Search of the Human Essence
The determination to capture the character of the subject has been constant in the arts since classical times, when artists sought to make faithful representations of the human gaze, expression, and gestures in order to show the personal, non-transferable nature of the individual.
The sculptor Hubert Ponscarme, whose work was almost exclusively concerned with the portrait genre, was famous for his observations and exact representations of the physical and moral qualities of his subjects.
In general, medallists sought to reproduce an impression or a general idea of the person through the facial features, the shape of the bust, the figure, and the pose, using the external appearance associated with the subject to provide an insight into his or her personality.
All works belong to the Rossend Casanova Collection, Barcelona, except when otherwise indicated.
This exhibition was curated by Rossend Casanova at Casa Masó, Girona, and produced by the Fundació Rafael Masó. The online presentation was curated by Cristina Pinsach.
The Fundació Rafael Masó is supported by Ajuntament de Girona, Col·legi d'Arquitectes de Catalunya-Demarcació de Girona, Col·legi d'Aparelladors Arquitectes Tècnics i Enginyers d'Edificació de Girona, Universitat de Girona, and the Masó and Aragó families.