WASHINGTON – If art is at least partly about versatility,then medalist,sculptor and cabinet maker Alexandre-Louis-Marie Charpentier was a true Renaissance man.
That's what visitors to the National Gallery of Art will discover in its new exhibit,“Alexandre-Louis-Marie Charpentier (1856-1909),” which features 58 works from the artist's career that showcase the variety of mediums he used to create his work.
“Charpentier was very experimental,” said Karen Y. Lemmey,the curator who organized the exhibit. “He was very interested in all types of materials and the bearing it had on his art.”
Beginning his career at 12,Charpentier served as an apprentice to a decorative engraver and studied how to design and engrave medals. As medals gained popularity in the late 19th century,he was commissioned to create coins commemorating historic events,such as the completion of the Eiffel Tower.
“His designs are sculptures about sculpture,” Lemmey said,pointing to Charpentier's medals depicting labor. “He often captured doctors,engineers,farmers and other workers in action,in order to show the importance of their work.”
Organized into four themes prominent in his career – maternity and children,labor,portraiture and decorative arts – this is the first full exhibit of Charpentier's works since his death and commemorates the 150th anniversary of his birth.
Known for detail and intricacy in his moldings,Charpentier used models who were family or personal friends. Emile Zola,founder of the naturalist literary movement and a good friend,was depicted by Charpentier on several occasions,in several mediums.
Common materials Charpentier used include terracotta,bronze,wood,brass,iron,plaster,ebony and pâte de verre,glass granules mixed together and heated to create a waxy-appearing medium.
Charpentier had a deep relationship with the Parisian arts scene.
“He was intimately connected to the arts,especially theater,” Lemmey said. “We tried to capture that in the exhibit by displaying a leather playbill that he created.”
The artist didn't stop there. He used his medal background to experiment with sculpture and collaborate with other artists,including carpenters,lace makers,interior designers and architects. His works were displayed not only at the official Salon in Paris but also in avant-garde art circles in Brussels and Vienna.
According to Lemmey,Charpentier played a role in the art nouveau movement because of his willingness to collaborate with other artists. One piece in the exhibit,a working clock called “The Flight of Time,” was a partnership between furniture maker Tony Selmersheim and Charpentier.
In the early 1890s,Charpentier began to make decorative objects and furniture,taking his art to a new functional form.
“Charpentier was interested in taking low-relief sculpture and bringing it to objects one would live with,especially the interiors of the common household,” Lemmey said.
The products of this phase were items such as crumb brushes,door locks,coffee pots and creamers,all of which have intricate designs.
“The decorative arts gave Charpentier a new meaning to his art. Now people could pick his pieces up every day,and not only admire it,but use it,” Lemmey said.
The exhibit will run through Jan. 28 in the West Building of the National Gallery of Art. Lemmey said some of the items will be included in a retrospective of Charpentier's works in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris next year.