« Au creux de la main »


The exhibition staged by the Department of Coins Medals and Antiquities of the Bibliothèque nationale de France (otherwise known as the Cabinet des médailles) from 11 December 2012 to 22 May 2013 as part of the Au creux de la main initiative was accompanied by a general book. That book included the present author’s introductory essay on the Cabinet’s promotion of the medal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, but there was no space for a detailed account of the exhibition. This article remedies that omission.


Notable among the medals on display were the large cast works acquired from the founder Antonin Liard, but there were also other works accepted as gifts or received from the Monnaie de Paris and private mints as a legal requirement. The exhibition was divided into the following sections.

- The medal at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. From the 1860s there was a revival of the art of the medal in France. Contributing to this development were the Monnaie de Paris, the Society of Friends of the French Medal, and the art critic Roger Marx.

- Engravers and founders. Struck medals, for which the Monnaie de Paris held a monopoly until 1895, were produced either by direct engraving or by means of the reducing machine. Sand casting was revived in thesecond half of the nineteenth century, with Antonin Liard casting many of the works of the great medallists.

- Art and artists. Artists could be portrayed either as successful men of the world or more informally.

- Commerce and advertising. New roles were found for medals, which could serve as advertisements, wedding souvenirs, decorative additions to furntiure, or reductions of larger works.

- The modern adventure. Medallists develped an allegorical language for new inventions and discoveries, and celebrated modern heroes from the worlds of exploration and science.

- The happy family. In the last decades of the nineteeth century medals often portrayed private individuals. The exhibition focussed on portraits of the various artists’ family members and friends.

- Academicism and new currents. The use of the reducing machine led to medals in low relief. Artistic developments such as symbolism, naturalism and impressionism influenced medallists. The medal was also linked with the decorative arts. - The medal in politics. Medals also retained their traditional role as instruments of political and ideological comment.

- Echoes of Germany. The Cabinet’s German First World War medals resulted mainly from the gift of a Louvre curator in 1930.

- The First World War seen from France. French medals of the First World War were less original, with the exception of those of Pierre Roche, which were created as models as events unfolded and cast in bronze by the firm of Canale after the war to form a medallic history.

- The Art Deco medal. After the war a new medallic style was developed by another generation of artists and encouraged by successive curators at the Cabinet, Ernest Babelon and his son Jean Babelon. The Art Deco style found in the medal one of its leading expressions.


I. Villela-Petit, « Au creux de la main. Une exposition du Cabinet des médailles à Paris », dans The Medal, t. 64, 2014, p. 32-57.


Voir aussi : « Le Cabinet des médailles à l’époque des Babelon »