Mistaken identity: Bourdon’s portrait of Warin in the Orléans collection.

galerie_du_palais-royal_gravecc81e_daprecc80s_...fontenay_louis-abel_bpt6k5701903b.jpg

I’m slowing beginning to unravel the mystery of a lost portrait, supposedly of the medal maker and sculptor, Jean Warin (1604-72), attributed to Sébastien Bourdon (1616-71), which once hung in the Palais Royal as part of the famous Orléans collection.

The painting is illustrated in the third volume of a 1786 publication of the Orléans collection: Galerie du Palais-royal… by the abbé de Fontenay. The inscription of that print names the sitter as: Jean Warin secretaire du Roi, Intendant des Bâtiments, Directeur général des Monnoies de france et l’un des plus célébres Gravure du XVIIeme Siècle

Jean Warin was extraordinarily enterprising man. Born Liege in 1604, he arrived in Paris in 1626 and ingratiated himself with the Bourbons via Louis XIII’s famous premier ministre Cardinal Richelieu for whom he engraved an extraordinary medal in 1631. By 1636 Warin had negotiated a controlling share in the moulin de monnaies in Paris, and in the years that followed, he held a near monopoly on the production of coins, jetons, and medals for Louis XIII and Louis XIV.

Médaille_Varin_Jean_btv1b7700288m

Jean Warin, Mens sidera volvit [his intellect makes the stars revolve], 1631, bronze medal. Collection, BnF.

An extant portrait of Warin instructing the young Louis XIV in history by coins and medals suggests that he became close to the young king. Perhaps it was the bond he formed with his royal patron at this tender age that led to the king’s life-long passion for collecting and commissioning medals.

Colour plate 1

François Lemaire (attrib.), Jean Warin instructing the Young Louis XIV in the appreciation of medals, ca.1645. Collection Musée de Monnaie, Paris.

Not only was Warin the greatest medallist of the age, he was also an accomplished sculptor in marble. The portrait bust that Warin carved in 1665 in direct competition with Gian Lorenzo Bernini (1598-1680) led his French contemporaries to call him the new Praxiteles.

Louis XIV, roi de France et de Navarre (1638-1715), reprÈsentÈ en armure en 1666

Jean Warin, Louis XIV, 1665, Marble. Collection: chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon.

Since I found that print of a portrait of Warin by Bourdon in routine web searches for an artist who has occupied my thoughts for the last decade, I have been puzzled as to why Warin is shown holding the so-called “Gonzaga Cameo” (now in the Hermitage Collection, St Petersburg).

detail

Detail from abbé de Fontenay’s Galerie du Palais-royal… 1786. vol. 3.

So-called Gonzaga Cameo

Cameo. Portraits of Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II (The Gonzaga Cameo)
Egypt, Alexandria, 3rd century BCE. Collection, The Hermitage, St Petersburg

As Nancy Grummond persuasively argued in her 1974 article “The Real Gonzaga Cameo,” the engraved gem in the Hermitage collection, held by the figure in our print, is not, in fact, the Gonzaga Cameo after all.

The double portrait cameo once hailed by the painter and avid engraved gem collector Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) as the finest double portrait of its kind to survive antiquity, is more likely to be the one now held in the Kunsthistoriches museum in Vienna.

ANSA_IXa_81_010690_2_fin

Ptolemaic Cameo, 278 BCE – 269 BCE, ten-layered agate. Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna.

The cameo illustrated in our portrait is a Ptolemaic gem carved in the 3rd century BCE, and once belonged to Queen Christina of Sweden (1626-89), who took it with her into exile in Rome in the 1650s. Christina bequeathed the cameo to her favourite, cardinal Decio Azzolino 1623-89), and it was then acquired along with the rest of her collection by the Duke of Bracciano, Livio Odescalchi (1652-1713).

By 1794 the gem was in the collection of Pope Pius IV (1717-99), from whom Napoléon seized it for his own collection at Malmaison. After Napoléon’s defeat, Joséphine de Beauharnais gifted the gem to Tsar Alexander I of Russia (1777-1825) in thanks for the kindness and assistance he had offered her. The cameo has remained at the Hermitage ever since.

Where in the story of that remarkable Ptolemaic cameo does it come to rest in the hands of the gentleman in our print? With no evidence to connect this famous ancient gem to Louis XIV’s medal maker, I’m increasingly confident that abbé de Fontenay was wrong, and this is not a portrait of Warin after all.

The hairstyle and clothes worn by this figure date the portrait to between 1650 and 1660. It does look very much like the portraits produced by Bourdon around that date, but the man in this picture looks much younger than 45 to 55 years old, as Warin was then. Neither does he look much like the portrait of Warin engraved by Gérard Edelinck (1640-1707)—the only labelled portrait of artist from the seventeenth century.

edelinck warin

Gérard Edelinck, Jean Varin, c. 1670, engraving. Collection: chateaux de Versailles et de Trianon.

Granted, it’s hard to match distinguishing features in portraits from this period, with wigs and clothes that have a tendency to obscure evidence of age and the idiosyncrasies we look for in a good likeness. So let’s suppose that Fontenay was right, and this is Warin. How then did he come to be holding a prized cameo from the collection of Queen Christina of Sweden?

Had Warin met Christina, it would have been after her abdication from the Swedish throne in 1654, and during her two sojourns in France from 1656-58. In that period, Warin was fully occupied with his work for Louis XIV at the Moulin des monnaies, and as his preferred engraver of medals, so it seems unlikely that he would have left France to meet with Swedish Christina. But no matter if and where they would have met, it’s very unlikely that Bourdon would paint Warin holding a cameo in the collection of a foreign princess.

Swedish_queen_Drottning_Kristina_portrait_by_Sébastien_Bourdon_stor

Sébastien Bourdon, Queen Christina of Sweden, ca. 1652-54, Nationalmuseum, Stockholm.

Bourdon’s portraits of artists and writers of that period tend to show the sitter with the tools of their craft. For example, a fascinating portrait of an engraver attributed to Bourdon, sold by Christie’s to a private collector in 2003 shows the engraver with a hammer in one hand and a repoussé punch in the other, about to set to work on a silver portrait.

Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 4.09.33 am

Sébastien Bourdon, anonymous engraver, c.1662, private collection.

The man in our print holds the cameo, but there are other objects in the picture too—a tray of medals, the bust of a philosopher (perhaps Socrates) looking upon them, and mercury gesturing to the heavens behind (perhaps a copy of Giambologna’s famous bronze). On the table next to the tray of coins is a quill sitting in a pot of ink, strongly suggesting that the sitter’s craft was writing. I would argue that this is a portrait of an antiquarian scholar.

If we accept abbé Fontenay’s attribution of the painting to Bourdon, there is another reason to connect this lost picture to Queen Christina, as Bourdon was her principle painter from 1652.

Could this be a portrait of a friend or advisor to Queen Christina painted for her by Bourdon that she took with her to her exile in Rome? Was he an antiquarian in Christina’s circle who drew inspiration from her collection? If so, that portrait may very well have been one of the many paintings from Christina’s collection purchased by the regent Philippe II, duc d’Orléans from the heirs of duke Odescalchi after the latter’s death in 1713.

That painting, along with the rest of the famous Orléans collection, was sold en masse by the regent’s heir, Philippe Égalité in 1792. The collection was kept together and passed through various hands until in 1798, twelve years after abbé Fontenay published his three-volume catalogue of the paintings at the Palais Royal, when the collection went on sale in London at two venues. A catalogue for the paintings displayed at the Lyceum in the Strand in December 1798, lists six portraits by Bourdon. Queen Christina is the only one of those six sitters named. Annotations to one copy of that catalogue suggest that our painting was one of the five anonymous portraits by Bourdon that sold for 10 guineas a piece.

Screen Shot 2019-03-23 at 4.10.36 am

All evidence points towards an error made by Fontenay in his catalogue of paintings at the Palais Royal. In reattributing the portrait as an antiquarian in the circle of Queen Christina of Sweden, we are losing one of only three known portraits to survive of a great artist who helped to form in the image of Louis XIV in the eyes of posterity.

It is my hope that further research into Queen Christina’s circle, and the Orléans collection will help to name this sitter and to shed more light on the life of the extraordinary Ptolemaic Cameo that he holds.

Robert Wellington, 2019

 

Jean Warin teaching the young Louis XIV history by medals.

IMG_9427 3

Conti Museum, Monnaie de Paris. Photo: the author, 2018.

I recently revisited a painting, Jean Warin instructing the Young Louis XIV in the appreciation of medals (ca.1645), at the Monnaie de Paris. I have been thinking about that picture for many years now. Looking closely at the strange double portrait, and the coins and medals in its boarder, has prompted me to extend the analysis I published in my book Antiquarianism and the Visual Histories of Louis XIV (2015). I include here new specifications about the sources for ancient coins and modern medals in the border with additional illustrations.

Colour plate 1

François Lemaire (attributed), Jean Warin instructing the Young Louis XIV in the appreciation of medals (ca.1645) (with later additions), oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the Musée de la Monnaie, Paris.

Jean Warin instructing the Young Louis XIV in the appreciation of medals, ca.1645, attributed to a lesser-known artist François Lemaire, shows the celebrated medal-maker Warin and Louis as a child.[i] Warin was a fine engraver and celebrated sculptor and his expertise in engraving dies for struck medals established his monopoly as royal medalist, working for both Louis XIII and his son.[ii] Evidently he had refined his own numismatic practice through a study of ancient coins, and many of his designs emulated classical precedents. This equipped him with knowledge of numismatics that he could pass on to his royal patron, a mutually beneficial exercise that would enable him to form a close relationship with the monarch, and ensure the continued support of his profession.

A border of assorted coins and medals frames the two figures in Lemaire’s painting—a curious later addition of the 1660s—evokes the role that this lesson in history played in the formation of the future king.[iii] Louis at seven is depicted to the right of the main panel, but above him, top center, he appears as a young man.

IMG_2286Screen Shot 2018-11-02 at 10.34.57 am

Jean Warin, NULLA DIES SUB ME NATOQUE HAEC FOEDERA RUMPET [“never in my name will this treaty be broken”] (1663). Silver medal. © Département des Monnaies, médailles et antiques. BnF.

It is accompanied by other numismatic portraits of celebrated heroes of the ancient world:

IMG_2292koinon severus alexander

(Top left) Alexander the Great: deified on an 3rd century Imperial Roman coin (coin of the Macedonian Koinon). It is likely that the artist or patron thought this to be an ancient Greek coin of Alexander.

IMG_2281AN01204439_001_l

(top right) Constantine the Great: Siliqua, Constantine I, c. 337. Diademed head of Constantine I looking upwards. RIC7 131A

IMG_229321969_803d7b27

Hercules: Giovanni da Cavinno after Alessandro Bassiano (?), Hercules, modern medal, Padua, c. 1520-70.

IMG_2280AN01293212_001_l

(bottom right) Julius Caesar: Inscription DIVI-IVLI [divine Julius]. Laureate head Julius Caesar right; behind, lituus. Border of dots. Silver denarius, 40 BC. RRC 526/2

IMG_2295AN1613269755_l

And Henri VI: HENRICVS • IIII • D • G • FRANC • ET • NAVAR • REX• [Henri IV king of France and Navarra], 1604. Silver. British Museum M.2231

Warin’s medal takes pride of place among these great men at the central apex of the panel. The addition of these coins and medals brings reflected glory to Warin, who likely commissioned this painting, with his portrait of his famous patron occupying a central position within medallic history. By placing the king among such illustrious predecessors from the ancient and recent past, Louis XIV is presented as the inheritor of their glory and their historical agency. Just as Caesar determined the narrative of ancient Rome, Louis XIV would forge the path of history in his own time.

IMG_2289belli-087.jpg

Valerio Belli, ΑΛΚΙΒΙΑΛΗΣ (Alcibiades), c. 1520-30. medal. BnF (Belli.087)

Warin holds a medal in one hand that he points to with the other, and the gesture invites comparison between the subject of this portrait and the young king. It is a modern medal by Valerio Belli from the early 16th century that depicts the ancient Greek general Alcibiades. However, it is possible that seventeenth-century painter or painter responsible for its inclusionthought it to be Alexander the Great.[vi] The life of Alexander would have provided many scenarios for the young prince to ponder and hone his own skills at decision making, and leadership, which Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet (1627–1704) would later argue was the purpose for the study of history by princes.[vii] Indeed, the ancient Macedonian general would become the young king’s alter ego, with Charles Le Brun’s famous Alexander paintings of the 1660s long thought to allude to the French king.[viii] With the later addition of Warin’s 1663 medal of Louis XIV, the medalist’s upward-pointing gesture emphasizes the symbolic function of this coin drawing a connection between it and that of his patron—the new Alexander.

The temporal distance between child and adult, ancestor and ancient precedent are collapsed within the unifying field of the painting. An Arcadian landscape provides the perfect ahistorical backdrop. The young king and his instructor have left the present through their study of medals, the usual constraints of time no longer apply to them, and they are able to move freely from past to present to future by way of the medals before them. Here the medal is presented as a conduit in history—a token that could transport its bearer to another time.

When medals such as those were assembled in an amateur’s cabinet they would provide a retreat from the present. The cabinet was an atemporal realm where chronologies and histories could be assembled tray by tray.[ix]

Louvre médaillier 3

Médaillier, with drawers from Louis XIV’s Cabinet des Médailles at Versailles. Louvre. OA11852.

Coins and medals from the ancient and modern world could be selected at will to invite comparison between figures of the present and the past; those that they would hope to emulate, and those whose crimes and errors must be avoided. Seventeenth-century French antiquarian Charles Patin described medals as a means “by which we are made aware of the rules that form our moral philosophy,” through the example of those who came before. [x] A collection of medals was a visual and tactile library of history where the numismatist could select a piece, examine it, and have seemingly unmediated access to the time from which it came. Such was the utility of numismatic collections in seventeenth-century France. They were a resource through which the grand narrative of history could be assembled and discoursed upon, for study and leisure.

Text adapted from: Robert Wellington, Antiquarianism and the Visual Histories of Louis XIV: Artifacts for a future past. (Ashgate, 2015),

[i] On Jean Warin and this painting see Jean-Luc Desnier and Evelyne Robert, “L’art de la médaille selon Jean Varin,” Gazette des Beaux-Arts CXX (1992): 1–14.

[ii] On Jean Warin more generally see François Mazarolle, Jean Varin: conducteur de la monnaie du moulin, tailleur générale des monnaies, controleur générale des poinçons et effigies: sa vie, sa famille, son oeuvre, 2 vols. (Paris: Bourgey & Schemit, 1932); Nicole Darding, “Jean Varin: de Liège à Paris,” Art & Fact 15 (1996); Mark Jones, “Jean Warin,” The Medal 11 (1987); Jones, A catalogue of the French medals in the British Museum, vol. 2, 1600-1672, 177–87.

[iii] Radiography has revealed that the six medals in border of this painting were a later addition. It has been suggested that this painting was commissioned by Warin in ca. 1645, but that the other medals were added to the border in the 1660s after the medalist had produced. See: Desnier and Robert, “L’art de la médaille selon Jean Varin.”

[iv] Desnier and Robert identify this as a medal of Warin’s design, but misdate it to 1662. Ibid, 3.

[v] The coin lower left has an ancient Greek appearance, lower center, is a medal of Henry IV, Louis’ grandfather by Guillaume Dupré from 1604, lower right is an ancient coin of Julius Caesar ca. 40 BCE, upper right a contemporary coin of Constantine, upper left an Alexander inspired by Hellenistic examples. Idem.

[vi] It has been suggested that this coin represented Alcibiades and it was a later addition to the painting that made a covert reference to Louis de Bourbon prince de Condé (known as le Grand Condé) who had betrayed Louis XIV during the Fronde, defecting to Spain to fight against France with the Spanish Habsburgs. However, this theory has been disproven by radiography carried out on the panel in the early 1990s that has shown that it was was part of the original composition of the painting, ca. 1645, at which point Condé was celebrated as a hero for leading significant military victories for France. This led Jean-Luc Desnier and Evelyne Robert to surmise that the Alcibiades medal may have been selected for its aesthetic appeal, and rarity alone, see Desnier and Robert, “L’art de la médaille selon Jean Varin.” However, Mark Jones has recently presented a convincing case that this medal was thought to represent Alexander the Great. Mark Jones, “Some aspects of the Medallic History of Louis XIV” in Médailles du Louis XIV et leur livre (forthcoming, 2015)

[vii] Jacques Bénigne Bossuet, Discours sur l’histoire…. (Paris: S. Mabre-Cramoisy, 1681), 1 ff.

[viii] See Donald Posner, “Charles Lebrun’s Triumphs of Alexander,” Art Bulletin 41, no. 3 (1959): 237–48.

[ix] The inventories of Louis XIV’s cabinet at Versailles show that the medals were arranged according to size, metal and era, see below for further detail.

[x] Patin, Histoire des médailles, 11–12.

Renewal of the Alliance

IMG_2217

J-B Nolin and J Le Clerc, after C Le Brun, The renewal of the alliance with the Swiss…18 Nov 1663, from the History of the King tapestry series. 1680 (mid 20th century reprint from original plate).

After the revelation that my successful Australian Research Council DECRA application was vetoed without explanation by the Australian Education Minister, I bought a copy of one of the prints that was the subject of my ill-fated grant at a Paris flea market.

IMG_2218

I removed it from its grotty frame and studied the lines, hatches, dots and lozenges. As I did I began to wonder again: What would the Kangxi Emperor of China thought of the meticulous rendering of clothes, the fine concentric and hatched lines that described form, and the curious mise-en-abyme of borders within borders.

IMG_2208

Would the Shah of Persia even have looked at the copy given to him in the last years of Louis XIV’s reign, when the French sent an envoy to Isfahan in the hope to gain a hold in international trade increasingly dominated by the Dutch and English. And what of the king of Siam, Phra Narai. Did he look at the magnificently dressed king in his petticoat breaches and see his equal?

IMG_2219

Finding this print today has reminded me of what really drives me to study these extraordinary documents crafted with unfathomable skill, and made to communicate across the world and into the future.

 

The many lives of Louis XIV prints and medals

Art historians working on histories of global exchange in the early modern period are often faced with the challenge of writing histories of travelling objects without the objects themselves, as they are so often lost or destroyed. The multiple copies produced of Louis XIV prints and medals that I’m working on has saved me from that fate, but they have presented me with other interesting conundrums. These objects don’t just have one life, but many lives accrued through the various itineraries that each different copy made around the world.

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 5.45.47 pm

The surviving examples of these prints and medals rarely bear physical marks of experience. It’s almost impossible to tell which particular print or medal went where and when and who they once belonged to. But I would like to argue all of the accumulated lives of travelling multiples transfer, at least conceptually, onto each and every copy of the prints from the same plates and medals from the same dies that do survive.

The problem of the ‘histories of belonging’ has been raised by Avinoam Shalem in relation to things with histories shared by many cultures. As Shalem points out, in the discipline of art history we tend to take a positivist approach to travelling objects that focusses on their physical and material transformations. “Questions of alteration and adaptation, and even destruction, are linked to the object’s corporal characteristics,” he rightly observes. But how do we account for changes that happen on the level of an object’s ‘anima’ to use Shalem’s term. Or as he puts it: “The thoughts that objects carry with them, not only physical, tangible evidence but… ideas and memories.”

The solution, Shalem suggests, is to view the object not just in terms of its place on a two-dimensional grid (imagine an object going from point a to point b on the map above), but to see it within a many layered series of connections that can account for simultaneous meanings across a variety of contexts.

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 5.58.29 pm

The diagram above is my first attempt to create a layered schema for a networked study of Louis XIV multiples. Here I have located the medal and print album at its origin point in France, I have then linked the different geographical locations via intermediaries who conveyed the gifts (in red). The recipients of gifts are indicated with a representative thumbnail of the gift that they received. If the gift was received in France, they are connected to both their place of origin, and the site of reception.

I admit, that this layered diagram doesn’t quite answer Shalem’s call for a multi-dimensional model for the networked study of objects. While perhaps a little more advanced than the route plotted on a map, is still underpinned by a positivist tendency for empirical data: the who, what, where and when of the object exchange.

Screen Shot 2018-02-15 at 5.38.48 pm

The diagram above is my attempt to capture the multivalence that we need for our histories of travelling objects. The intangible experiences that an object undergoes throughout its life – the ‘ideas and memories’ of those through whose hands it passes – are not erased with each subsequent experience but accrued. The object does not cease to be French, and to mark the lives of members of its ruling family when a copy of this medal was gifted to the Amerindian warrior Nescambiouit. Nor should we forget that it once was given to an African man who played at being a Prince at the French Court. The extraordinary journey of an object just like that one that went to Persia only adds to its appeal as a symbol of global networks of exchange in the early modern world.

Following James Clifford’s call in his 1997 study, Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Centuryfor an examination of the transitions, contact zones, and networks of people, I have not expressed world views in my layered diagram in terms of cultures, but of individual actors.

Each of the agents named here led an exceptional life. Louis XIV and Shah Sultan Hosayn enjoyed extraordinary privilege, but neither of them left the lands over which they were sovereign. Aniaba and Nescambiouit became extraordinary through their experience of travel to the Court of France – a great rarity for people native to Africa and Canada at that time.

The kind of networked study of travelling objects that I would like to propose, is not one that makes broad generalising claims about cultural contexts, but one that explores the individual agents and networks involved in the exchange of diplomatic gifts.

Sadly, many, if not all of the travelling objects that I am working on have likely suffered the ultimate transformation. They have been lost and they are presumed destroyed. There are only two examples of the Gold Famille Royale medal presented with a loop that survive to my knowledge.

BnF copy

One of those medals (above) is held in the collection of the Bibliothèque national de France. It was recently lent to château de Versailles for the Visiteurs de Versailles exhibition (also travelling to the Met this April). At the Versailles exhibition, this object was displayed as a place holder for the many the copies of this object that once travelled the world, even though this particular copy never left France.

fam royale installation

What fascinates me is the potential for extant copies of these medals to bear the burden of the histories of their sister objects that didn’t make it. Just as Clifford argued that travelling people bring back ideas from the outside world to their place of origin to create a networked culture, I’d like to propose that each and every multiple from a set takes a share in the many thoughts and ideas that were accumulated by other copies of the same object. This metaphysical network imbues these objects with a simultaneous plurality of meanings. And yet these objects sit mute in our collections, patiently waiting for us to tell the extraordinary stories of the life-changing travels of their siblings.

Robert Wellington, February 2018.

This post is an extract from a paper to be delivered at the CAA annual conference, 2018 in Los Angeles as part of the panel: Travel, Diplomacy, and Networks of Global Exchange in the Early Modern Period, part 1. (Wednesday 21 February, 10:30-12:00, room 404A)

Notes from the field: A Louis XV jeton for Martinique, not Canada.

Jeton, Louis XV, Sub Omni Sidere Crescunt, 1751. Collection: The American Numismatic Society.

Today I became aware of a fascinating jeton (a small medal-like token) from the reign of Louis XV. The reverse carries the image of what was thought be a First Nations Person of New France (Canada). This ‘Amerindian’ has plumes in his hair, he carries a bow, and gazes over his shoulder to look at an crop of giant lilies (the fleur de lys of France). The inscription—Sub Omni Sidere Crescunt [under every constellation they grow]—a reference to the lilies of France (her colonies) that grow simultaneously in lands across the globe.

I was excited to find another numismatic image of what I believed to be an indigenous warrior from New France. The only other numismatic representation of that kind is found on the Honos et Virtus [honour and virtue] medal awarded to Amerindian warriors who collaborated with the French colonists.

honon et virtus

That medal depicts the First Nations warrior in classical garb, wearing the toga of an ancient Roman, and in a comparative state of undress compared to the centurion-like figure (the representative of France) with whom he shakes hands.

In comparison, the figure from the jeton is dressed in what appears to be traditional costume. It is, nevertheless, a rather generic and fictionalised version of what an indigenous person from the New World ought to look like.

Numismatic society of america

The exergue beneath the feet of our warrior bears the words Col. Franc. De LAM. 1751. Numismatists, have assumed that this text is a contraction of ‘Le colonies françaises de l’Amerique’ [French colonies in America]. This is the meaning given by Charles Wyllys Betts, whose catalogue American Colonial History Illustrated by Contemporary Medals (1894) is the standard text for citations of medals that relate to the history of North America and Canada:

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 3.14.34 pm

Betts took his reading, it seems, from a notice published in the American Numismatic Journal in 1879:

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 3.38.53 pm

George Parsons wrote a longer article for the American Numismatic Journal on the ‘Colonial Jetons of Louis XV’ in 1884. He makes the following interpretation of the jeton in question:

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 3.42.51 pm

That jeton, with its wonderfully evocative image of a native in the colonies gazing upon the lilies of France, is indeed ripe for such an interpretation. In the copy of the jeton described by Parsons there’s even an alligator climbing from the water – presumably a reference to the native fauna found in the southern parts of the French territories in the New World.

Sadly, it seems that these worthy American numismatists of the nineteenth century had not found any contemporary French descriptions of that jeton. Had they done so, they would have learnt that it was, in fact, intended to celebrate the French colony in Martinique, as a description from the Mercure Galant of April 1751 confirms.

Screen Shot 2018-02-08 at 2.36.46 pm

In an article title ‘Devises pour les jettons du premier de janvier 1751’ [Devises for the jetons of the first of january 1751], our jeton is described as:

“Une Sauvage, & des Lys plantés auprès de lui. Légende: Sub omni sidere crescunt; ils croissent dans tous les climats. Exergue, Colonies Françoises de la Martinique, 1751.”

[A savage, & some lilies planted next to him. Legend: sub omni sidere crescunt; they grow in every climate. Exergue, French colonies of Martinique, 1751.]

So it seems that this image of a First Nations warrior from Canada was intended to be an indigenous man of Martinique. There is something to be said here about the generic way in which native people of colonised territories were depicted in the ancien-régime. It is true that this image of a ‘noble savage’ among the lilies could just as easily have represented any number of the many peoples whose lands were occupied by Europeans in the early modern period.

This is an example of the kinds of misconceptions that have been passed down from nineteenth-century descriptions of coins, medals, and jetons that have been take up uncritically by the dealers and collectors of American numismatics who have sought them out. To be sure, a connection with the colonial history of America and Canada has made this jeton highly collectible in those countries. Where an average Louis XV jeton might be sold for US$50-100, copies of this piece have sold for over US$1,000.

Contracted inscriptions can lead to confusion and lasting misconceptions. This was the very opposite of what the designers of medals and jetons had intended. These miniature monuments carried inscriptions that were supposed to preserve historical information for posterity – to provide clarity about historical details that might otherwise be lost.

For me, this is a timely reminder to return to the archive, and to render my own readings of artefacts from the ancien-régime, rather than relying on what has come before.

Robert Wellington.

8 February 2018.