Seven Medallions

Medallions created as a student at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts circa 1910 by Frederick Warren Allen, Sculptor.

“At last I am sending off the last of the medallions…I could only make 2 or 3 at a time…Very few of them came out perfect. The old medallion shells had some nicks in them that came out as bumps on the casts, and sometimes air bubbles formed at the surface that had to be filled in afterwards. Sometimes the lubricant misbehaved. Some are still somewhat defective, but I have used all the “Dry Stone” (not plaster of Paris, …but nearly as durable as concrete) I was given… I am enclosing a complete set for you. Some are rough in spots; I am not sure what caused that. Some of the inscriptions are not legible. We don’t really have any documentation that Grandy made any of them, but pretty strong circumstantial evidence. Mamsie had written on the box, “Medallion shells that F treasured.” All but the portrait head are tied together by similarities of subject and composition.” (From Gordon Allen to Christina Abbott September 1998.)

July 14, 1988  “Two of the molds were unfinished (grayish plaster, whereas the others appear to have been shellacked) and do not stand up well for repeated use.” He spray-painted the copies I requested since he found that the details stand out better than the plain white drystone.

Judging by the date of the one signed by Vernon 1910, it is entirely possible that this is student work by Allen, done in that same year under his teacher, Bela Lyon Pratt, the creator of the famous Pratt gold coin. Frederick would have been a young man in his second year of studies at the SMFA. He had entered the school in September 1908. The following September he “Entered Art Engraving Company’s employ to learn engraving September 1, 1909. Also did designing and modeling (illegible word). Re-entered MFA October 4, 1909. Kept up engraving afternoons.” (Diary) Art engraving, no longer practiced today, was an exacting and highly skilled craft.

He had started to learn it in the shops in Attleboro where he apprenticed as a youth. “Worked every summer in jewelry shops where he learned hubcutting, dyesinking, and engraving. One man, for whom he did engraving, said he was the best boy he’d ever had working for him and he was sorry to lose him.” (Agnes) The skill required to do engraving translated well into the equally exacting craft of creating coins and medals in very low relief. These medallions are not the equal of his masterful later relief work, but they are remarkable as student work.

The most consistent theme in these seven medallions is the inclusion of wings four times, two on flying horses, one on a winged man and one, the only female subject on the medallions, holding a statue of the winged Nike. The second theme is that of the Lyre used twice and the third is the Pegasus used twice.

Medallion of Sculptor with Pegasus, c.1910, F.W.Allen, Sculptor

1) The largest of the 7 pieces (avg diameter 3 7/8” or 19 cm) depicts a Pegasus ascending behind a sculptor holding a hammer and chisel. He is seated on top of a square flat chunk of layered stone, perhaps a mountain top, slumped forward with his arms resting on his thighs. His anatomically accurate muscular body appears fatigued from his labors. The composition is studied. Starting just under the upper curve, a horizontal line is formed by the top of the bent wing and the head of the horse with its ears flattened back. The line is repeated in the foreleg of the horse and carried across the sculptor’s lowered head and neck, repeated below in his forearm, then again in the top of the flat stone on which he sits. In counterpoint, the diagonal line of the horse’s forefoot and chest is repeated in the sculptor’s hand and upper extremity to the shoulder. Just above the visual center of the medallion, the mass of his body forms a circle from the top of his head around to his seat and up through his lower leg at the center of which is the hand that holds the square hammerhead. A spiral like a nautilus shell starts at the hammer and rises up and around his chest and shoulder to the horse’s flank then up along the man’s right leg to the horse’s chest and neck and back around across the wing and round the rim of the medal. This is a complex composition for a second-year student.

Portrait medallion of Duc de Loubat, c.1910, F.Vernon, Sculptor?

2) The next medallion to the right in the group photo (avg diameter 2 13/16” or 7.2 cm) is a portrait head. The inscription identifies the personage as JOSEPH FLORIMOND  DUC DE LOUBAT, and in tiny letters at the bottom, F. VERNON 1910. Since the artist’s name is someone other than Allen, it is doubtful that it was done by him. For that reason, it is being omitted in this text. However it is a fine portrait and if Allen did create it, it is commendable. There was no student in his class named Vernon.

3) To the right of the portrait is another set of wings. This image (avg diameter 2 15/16” or 7.5 cm) is one of a nude male figure, his arms reaching up to the sun, cocked at the wrist in a receptive attitude, his wings outstretched straight to the rim on each side. The lowest portion of the sun is showing at the top center with short rays glowing downward. At the bottom opposite the sun and behind his feet are what looks like textured billowing clouds in a shape that mimics the inverse of the sun at the top. The slim youthful figure is simplified, being neither muscular nor detailed anatomically. The feathers of the wings are also simplified and stretch beyond the confines of the circle of the medal. His left foot and his hands touch the very edge of the rim. The simplified cruciform composition on a smooth ground is formed by the upright narrow figure of the reaching young man crossed by the width of the wings, both stretched to the edges or beyond. The surprising element of this relief is the face, which can hardly be seen on the medallion. Enlarged, the entire uplifted countenance with its contours and a clear expression are visible. The perspective required to show the features with any accuracy is difficult to accomplish, especially in such a small size and low relief.

Tiffany Foundation medallion, c.1910, F.W.Allen, Sculptor

On either side of the sun, inside the rim in capital letters is the inscription “FERVET OPVS,” feruet opus, or  “heated work” in Latin.  Continuing around the lower half under the wings, the inscription read LOVIS COMFORT TIFFANY FOVNDATION.” The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation still exists and provides grants, which are awarded for painting, sculpture, printmaking, photography, video and craft media. No medallion or award medal seems to exist, so perhaps Allen was designing one for that purpose, one that he would have aspired to receive.

It is the intention of the Foundation to support artists whose work shows promise, but who have not yet received widespread critical acclaim or commercial recognition. The purpose of the monetary grants is to give artists the opportunity to produce new work and continue their development.”

St. Paul Institute medallion, c.1910, F.W.Allen, Sculptor

4) On the second row, starting on the left side, is the smallest of the seven pieces (avg. diameter of 2 1/8” or 5.3 cm) with the inscription “ST. PAUL INSTITUTE.” This may be the St .Paul Institute of Arts and Science in Minnesota. Founded in 1894 as The St.Paul School of Fine Arts with classes in the Metropolitan Hotel, it was where Paul Manship received early training. The school had financial troubles and in 1908 merged with the St. Paul Institute of Arts and Science. That year the school enrolled 591 students in its fine arts courses. However, by 1917 with dropping enrollment and continuing financial issues, the school closed. In 1910 when it is thought that these medallions were modeled, the school was new and active. (Before Museums Came: A Social History of the Fine Arts in the Twin Cities, pp. 70-72. A photo of a life drawing class in the Metropolitan shows Paul Manship on p.71)

The central figure holds a lyre in one hand and the statue of the winged Nike in the other, diagonally across the torso from one another. The lyre is a common instrument used in Greek antiquity and could represent the arts. The instrument is used twice in this group of medallions. This first use is of a school of Fine Arts, the second gives awards in the arts, the American Academy of Arts and Letters. The Nike statue wears an ankle length garment with sleeves, gathered under the breast with a zoster like a traditional Greek Ionic chiton. Her hands hold objects in a bent-wrist pose. In her right hand is a wreath, the Victor’s Crown. The object in her left hand is not clear and doesn’t resemble any of the traditional Nike symbols: wreath, palm branch, torch, sash, golden sandals.

The nude female is a common subject in ancient Greek art especially in depicting deities. Here the woman is similar to Athena of the Parthenon in that they both hold a figure of Nike standing on an orb. True nudes in art, as Allen was learning in his early student days, are the idealization of the human form, appropriate for gods and goddesses. Here Allen makes that reference.

The face of the woman on this medallion is exotic, her forehead low and features generous. Her thick wavy hair is contained with bands and what looks like netting as represented in Greek art, curly at the low forehead and temples and pulled away from her face at the sides into a heavy bun, leaving her ear exposed.

Compositionally, the woman is the central figure. She sits on a flat piece of ground on the heel of her back foot, the leg bent under her. The front leg is also bent at the knee with the weight balanced on her flat foot. A robe drapes in parallel soft folds diagonally across her lap and again around the ankle. Her bare torso with stylized breasts sits erect and facing squarely forward with the arms down and out gracefully to each side. She looks up at the statue she holds in her right hand and her left hand supports the frame of the simple U-shaped Greek lyre with a crossbar at the top of straight arms. The weight of the mass held up on the left is balanced by that of the instrument held low on the lower right. The top half of the composition is light with a smooth ground, the uplifted winged figure and the upward gaze of the woman. The bottom half is heavy and grounded, the mass of the hips and lower limbs on the earth forming a solid base for the eye. Under and around the rim is the inscription ST. PAUL INSTITUTE in an extended typeface with heavy verticals and a slight serif on block capital letters. There is no signature or date.

Architect’s Medal, c.1910, F.W.Allen, Sculptor

5) The next medallion to the right is one for the architect. A large muscular man with a bare torso sits in thought as he turns his head to gaze at a city in the distance. Tools of his trade are at his feet and in his left hand, which rests on his left leg. He sits on what looks like a block or chimney with a cap which has the letters N.Y. carved into the side. His robe swirls around his back and covers his left hip and right leg, falling between his legs to the ankles while leaving his left leg bare. His chin sits in the palm of his right hand with the fingers curled around it and the elbow resting on his knee. The busy details of the composition on the right half are balanced by the quiet empty space of the sky and the barely visible distant city buildings on the left half.

Inscribed above his head under the rim in capital letters is the word ARCHITECT. It appears that there are more letters, but they are hidden behind the fabric. A part of a V or U shows above his shoulder and the top of a P or R followed by the top half of an A appears behind his hip with perhaps the vertical stem of an L, suggesting the word “architectural.” The sliver of a half-moon forms at the bottom of the curve under a horizontal line representing the ground. In the space are five letters LECVE with a larger capital A woven into the C, perhaps meant to be seen as a monogram. On either side of the letters is a small dot centered in the vertical span.

The scene draws the viewer in to dream with the handsome, masculine architect.

Opportunity, Inspiration, Achievement: Pegasus medallion, c.1910, F.W.Allen, Sculptor

6) The next medallion focuses entirely on the Pegasus which appears behind the sculptor in the first piece described. The winged horse was a favorite image used by Allen, appearing twice here, once in a large medallion for the Harvard Advocate and a statue in the round modeled at the end of his career in retirement when, just for pleasure, he sculpted one outside in the yard of his New Hampshire home. The mythological beast here leaps up into the sky above the clouds, his hooves pawing the air as he climbs higher with spread wings, his mouth open, ears back and tail flying. What a powerful image. As a young man he had dreams, and the words he has inscribed above the clouds, the grand edifice and land below express those dreams: OPPORTUNITY    INSPIRATION   ACHIEVEMENT

7) The last of the seven medallions is dramatic. A powerful nude male figure sits at the top of a rugged mountain, symbolically having reached the summit, a Gold Medal, the peak of achievement for a man of the arts.

The inscription, AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS AND LETTERS, appears on the right side of the medal just below the center point. A barely visible monogram also appears on the left side of the medal across from the word “Academy.” Since 1909 the Academy had awarded gold medals “for distinguished achievement in several different categories of the arts, including Graphic Art, Painting and Sculpture.” The first Gold Medal for Architecture, which included Landscape Architecture, was awarded in 1912.

American Academy of Arts and Letters medallion, c.1910, F.W.Allen, Sculptor

The artist depicted here holds a 5-string Lyre with curved arms, the tuning pegs visible above the crossbar. Compositionally, the busy details of the mountain merge into the smoother planes of the figure and then become quiet in the smooth space outside of the god-like man. This is perhaps Hermes himself who is credited in mythology with creating the lyre from the entrails of a sacrificial cow and the shell of a turtle.

This grouping of seven medallions is apparently something that Frederick Allen valued. The wooden molds were kept for a long while and used by Allen’s son Gordon to cast copies for the family. The images here are imperfect, but give enough of an idea of the young man’s talent to use as a marker for his later achievements.

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