Alexandre Charpentier was a sculptor and medallist, whose work is more usually that of portrait plaques and medals. Charpentier was born Alexandre-Louis-Marie in 1856 in a working-class Parisian neighborhood and raised amidst the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). At the age of twelve, he was apprenticed to a decorative engraver, a path that led him to the École des Beaux-Arts, where he studied as a designer and engraver of medals in the early 1870s. Medals - small, low-relief sculptures that were presented as awards, distributed for publicity, and used as tokens of appreciation and commemoration - began to reach a wider popular audience in the nineteenth century. A versatile and largely self-taught artist, Charpentier experimented with medals in a variety of materials including bronze, silver, pewter, embossed leather and paper, terracotta, plaster, and 'pâte de verre' (molded glass). No one was more innovative in this field than Charpentier, who not only produced portrait medals of great variety, but also devised plaquettes that he adapted for use in furniture design and interior decoration, much of it in the sinuous ornamental style known as 'Art Nouveau' (New Art).
Charpentier's ambition was to become a sculptor, but his incomplete elementary education prevented him from fulfilling the academy's rigorous requirements for that course of study. He abandoned the school before finishing his training as a medalist. His departure from the academy left him unencumbered by tradition and free to experiment with novel formats, styles, and subjects, working in a remarkable range of materials. Though he exhibited regularly at the official Salon and other well-established venues, he also participated in avant-garde circles in Brussels, Vienna, and Paris. Moreover, he was a noted figure in the radical, vernacular Parisian theater for which he designed playbills and sketched the leading actors and critics in clay. § In the early 1890s, Charpentier began making decorative objects and furniture. His studio in Paris became the focus of 'L'Art dans Tout' (Art in Everything) - a group of designers, artists, artisans, and architects who collaborated on interior furnishings that they hoped would adorn not only the luxurious villas of their patrons, but also the public housing of the working class.
Although Charpentier enjoyed great success at the end of the nineteenth century as a medalist and relief sculptor, his work has only recently been rediscovered by museums and collectors.
[Megakles Rogakos 12/2008]
FORRER, LEONARD Biographical Dictionary of Medallists 1904-1930 1987 Spink & Son Ltd, London, p.177
JONES, MARK The Art of the Medal 1979 British Museum, London, p.345
CATALOGUE Alexandre-Louis-Marie Charpentier 2006 National Gallery of Art, Washington
MAIER, NICOLAS French Medallic Art 1870-1940 2010 Munich [English/German/French]