Article by Alexander Noran
Any collector of French municipal and commemorative medals will have run across the work of Adolphe Rivet at some point in their collecting adventures. His clever, ‘arts-and-crafts’ style signature was, through the late 19th and early 20th centuries, a ubiquitous part of the medallic productions of the Paris Mint. Noted particularly for his vignettes as well as his depictions of female allegories, Rivet’s distinctive style was perfectly in sync with the shift from the Neo-Classical as well as Pastoral-Romantic tastes of the latter 1800s to the Art-Nouveau movement of opening decades of the following century. And yet, considering how accomplished his works were, very little is known of the man himself.
What is known is that Adolphe Rivet was born in the town of Périgueux in 1855, and that he attended the prestigious L’École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts de Paris, where he studied under the likes of Jules Cavelier, Hubert Ponscarme and Oscar Roty. His work, though not particularly innovative, would find contemporary recognition, as Rivet received an honorable mention and a second class medal respectively at the 1888 and 1908 Salons des Artistes Français. Growing prominence led to Adolphe receiving numerous commissions from the Paris Mint, beginning in the mid-to-late 1880s.
The secret to Rivet’s success at this time appears to be the same thing which makes his medals popular today, namely his ability to compose vibrant and interesting vignettes, as well as his ability to execute them with adept precision. It would appear that Adolphe Rivet’s career peaked around the turn of the 20th century (an assumption built on the proportional number of his medals either being struck or re struck at this time), which is interesting, as this this period also marks the beginning of the transition to a preference for Art-Nouveau styling in medal design. Generally, one would assume that an academically trained artist such as Rivet would have either been opposed to, or incapable of changing his output to match popular tastes, and yet, it would seem that Adolphe was more than able to bridge the stylistic gap. In fact, Rivet would go on to produce some of the most iconic and well balanced medals being designed at the beginning of this ‘new era.’
For a man of remarkable talent, Adolphe Rivet’s later years are shrouded in mystery. Sources variously record his death as “after 1908” and “after 1912” – the publication dates of two encyclopedias of French medallists. Many of his designs would be used during this time by the Paris mint when commissioned to strike medals for other countries (most notably Argentinian commissions), and his output appears to have dropped off considerably after 1910 (again, an observation made based on surviving specimens).
Although Rivet’s medals have been found with inscriptions as late as 1958, indicating that there were either remaining stocks of them, or that they were still being re struck in the mid-20th century, I recently ran across an interesting piece which might serve to give a more precise end date to this particular artist’s career and life.
The above medal, although in poor condition and not a particular rarity, bears an interesting inscription, as it was awarded in 1928. Although we have already mentioned that Adolphe’s work was being awarded as late as the 1950s, these items are all dated based on engraved inscriptions, whereas here, both the date and the artist’s signature appear in the master die. As a result, we can now offer the more definite dates for Alphonse Rivet of 1855 – after 1928.
Though small consolation in terms of pinning down the man himself, the works of Alphonse Rivet are an interesting study in how an individual can live on through their craft. Perhaps the death date of Alphonse is not important, because the pieces of art that he created are timeless, and as a result, so too shall be his name.
Alexander Noran is chief numismatist at PCGM and foreign markets consultant for IAP Capital Group.