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Darwin Correspondence Project

2.8 Alphonse Legros medallion

The painter, printmaker and sculptor Alphonse Legros created this bronze medallion with a profile portrait of Darwin in 1881, shortly before the latter’s death. According to a friend of Legros, the writer Thomas Okey, it was based not on formal sittings but on a chance sighting of Darwin at a Royal Society meeting: Legros is said to have seized the opportunity to make a rapid portrait sketch on an envelope. ‘That powerful and noble head made a deep impression upon his mind; it was, he said, the nearest approach to the Greek ideal he had met with in a modern.’ Yet this medallion creates an impression of Darwin’s character which is strikingly different from that conveyed by Legros’s refined drawing and his drypoint engraving of him, which may have been done at the same period. Instead of philosophical composure, there is here intense mental energy: Darwin’s brow is furrowed, his hair and beard unkempt. According to Cosmo Monkhouse, Legros was fascinated by ‘faces that suggest a history . . . all the better if they have some touch of the strange or the wild’. For example, he might create a portrait etching of a refined and distinguished man, and in later states of the print transform his features into ‘those of a degenerate type’. Klinkicht’s rugged graphic version of Legros’s Darwin medal was reproduced on this page of Monkhouse’s article, and seemingly exemplified the tendency to which he referred. Marion H. Spielmann, writing in 1901, similarly noted that Legros’s portrait sculptures were ‘Free, broad, and vigorous . . . They are satyr-like in expression and in feeling, ugly with that kind of ugliness which we sometimes prefer to beauty.’ Spielmann thought the portrayal of Darwin was one of Legros’s best works, ‘in the rendering of the nobility of expression’, but it verged on excess, with a kind of primitivism or roughness in technique. A critic in the American journal Art Amateur wrote of Legros’s ‘Gothic spirit’, while Edmund Gosse found images like this medallion simply ‘grotesque’.  

Such qualities can only be explained by the artistic context in which Legros worked. The new art form of medallions which he promoted – often for portrayals of leading intellectuals and literary men – was a conscious reaction, in the spirit of the Arts and Crafts movement, against the established style and technique of mass-produced medals of the time. Whereas the latter were struck like coinage, and replicated designs that had been mechanically reduced from the original models, Legros’s medals were individually modelled in relief and cast in bronze from a mould by the traditional lost-wax process, meaning that the casts were necessarily limited in number. They were first and foremost works of art, collectors’ pieces, inspired by the cast medals of Pisanello and other early Renaissance masters which Legros had seen in the British Museum and in the Cabinet des Médailles in Paris: it was typical of him to fuse conscious archaism and veneration for the old masters with daring modernity. In the early 1880s he was deeply influenced by the powerful and unorthodox sculptures of his friend Rodin, who visited London in the summer of 1881. Rodin himself subsequently supervised the casting of the Darwin medallion in Paris, and Legros asked for it to be as unpolished as possible, retaining the sketch-like spontaneity and individualism of the model. In their idiosyncrasy and uniqueness, such medallions defied the endless proliferation, diffusion and adaptation of commercial photographs of Darwin – although Legros cannot have been unaffected by such photographic imagery. One might compare his medallions with the portrait photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron, including that of Darwin: she similarly rejected slick commercial techniques and precise definition in favour of expressiveness, emphasising both the powerful characters of her famous sitters and her own distinctive subjectivity in portraying them.  

As a professor at the Slade School of Art, Legros introduced classes in medal-making to the syllabus, and was evidently keen that examples of his own prototypical works should be accessible in public collections. Casts of the Darwin medallion went to the British Museum (in 1882), the Fitzwilliam Museum and Christ’s College Library, Cambridge. Legros gifted another to Manchester City Art Gallery (now the Manchester Art Gallery) through its antecedent, the Royal Manchester Institution. It was among ‘two panels of bronze portrait medallions and thirty-two white metal medallions’ which he gave to the Gallery, and which were accessioned in June 1883, with a collective valuation of £30. Legros also exhibited six of his bronze medallions of famous men, including that of Darwin (no. 1604), at the Royal Academy in 1882. 

  • physical location Manchester Art Gallery 

  • accession or collection number 1883.9.f 

  • copyright holder Manchester Art Gallery 

  • originator of image Alphonse Legros 

  • date of creation 1881 

  • computer-readable date 1881-01-01 to 1881-12-31 

  •  medium and material cast bronze medallion, uniface; inscribed round the edge in capitals ‘Charles Darwin 1881’, and signed bottom right ‘A.L’. 

  • references and bibliography Information from the archive records of Manchester Art Gallery, kindly provided by Janet Boston. Cosmo Monkhouse, ‘Professor Legros’, Magazine of Art, 5 (1882), pp. 327–334. W.W. Fenn, ‘Professor Legros’, in Wilfrid Meynell (ed.), Some Modern Artists and their Work (London, Paris, New York: Cassell, 1883), pp. 174–184 (pp. 181, 183). ‘Alphonse Legros’, Art Amateur, 11:6 (November 1884), pp. 119–122. Sir Charles Holroyd and Thomas Okey, ‘Alphonse Legros: some personal reminiscences’, Burlington Magazine, 20:107 (February 1912), pp. 272–6 (p. 276). Philip Attwood, ‘The Society of the Medallists’, The Medal, 3 (July 1983), pp. 4–11.  Attwood, ‘The medals of Alphonse Legros’, The Medal, 5 (Sept. 1984), pp. 7–24. Timothy Wilcox, Alphonse Legros, exhibition at Musée des Beaux-Arts, Dijon, 1987. Laurence Brown, A Catalogue of British Historical Medals, 1837–1901: The Reign of Queen Victoria, 3 vols, vol. 2 (London: Seaby, 1987), p. 328, no. 3093. Attwood, Artistic Circles: The Medal in Britain, 1880–1918 (London: British Museum Press, 1992), pp. 4–12. Article on Legros by Timothy Wilcox in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Tomoko Ando, ‘Rodin’s reputation in Great Britain: the neglected role of Alphonse Legros’, Nineteenth-Century Art Worldwide, 15:3 (15 Oct. 2016), accessed October 2019. 


 

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