Portrait Medallions

David is often credited with the nineteenth-century revival of cast bronze portrait medals, a genre invented during the Renaissance. Owing to the larger size and single-sided compositions of David’s examples, they are usually called medallions. Over a period of roughly forty years, the sculptor used the medallic form to produce a portable pantheon of some five hundred contemporaries. This hoard of (mostly) illustrious men and women was mass-produced by Parisian foundries, pirated and hawked on the streets of many European cities, and coveted by consumers of celebrity. Casts of the portraits also exist in plaster, porcelain, and other metals such as lead. None of the medallions were commissioned, and David received no financial benefit from their reproduction. Eminently mobile artworks, they blurred the line between public monument and private objet d’art. With notable exceptions, the medallions present portraits in profile, a standard composition that stems from ancient coins. Although profile views typically evoke stillness and linearity, the high relief and expressive surfaces of David’s medallions produce complex and shifting light effects. These effects are heightened in examples such as the Alfred de Musset, where the figure is caught in a three-quarter view.

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