The E-Sylum:  Volume 10, Number 33, August 19, 2007, Article 12


[Patrick McMahon recently visited the Boston Public Library
and submitted this report on the current exhibit "The Extravagant
Ambassador: The True Story of Alexandre Vattemare, the French
Ventriloquist Who Changed the World." -Editor]

This small but dense exhibition at the Boston Public Library on
the life of Alexandre Vattemare is certainly worthy of a visit
and has lots to reward bibliophiles and numismatists alike. It
is organized into a number of short (mostly) chronological sections
such as "The Early Years and the Stage," "System of Exchanges"
(which includes the Album Cosmopolite published 1837-39), and
"Collector" (chiefly autographs). These give a basic background
on his development and early career.

Beginning with the section "The Bridge Between Two Worlds" the
installation of objects becomes quite dense and though most of
the items here are books, it does include the  Caunois medal for
the monument to Moliere which he sent to the Boston Public Library
in 1844 and medallion portraits of Clementine and Celeste Moreau
(by Barre, I think--I forgot to note the artist). This section and
the next one (The Exchange System's Cabinet of Curiosities) are
where I spent most of my time. If you have a chance to see the
exhibition before it closes and are only interested in the
numismatic material you can head right for the Cabinet of

The Exchange System's Cabinet of Curiosities is a wide-ranging
mixture of material, including Audubon prints, medals, mineral
specimens, photographs, material from the 1855 Universal Exposition
and Vattemare's numismatic works. The first case in this section
focusing on Vattemare himself includes the plaster medallion by
Barre from 1831 and a bronze medal of Sir Walter Scott by Bain
ca. 1824.

Another case focuses solely on historical medals given to the museum
in St.-Malo. Some of them are hard to view in the case but they
include a bronze medal of Louis XIV by Mauger, another commemorating
the birth of the Dauphin in 1781 by Duvivier, one by Tiolier of
Kaiser Friedrich Wilhelm III, another by Andrieu and Gayrard called
"Gallia et America Foederata" (commemorating a commercial treaty
between the U.S. and France in 1822), a Pingret medal commemorating
the accession of Czar Nicholas I, and a satirical 18th century medal
by J.-C. Roettiers entitled "Ridere Regnare Est" (this one is very
hard to see). Two large medals, one commemorating Bibiliotheque
Sainte Genevieive in Paris and another by Bovy for the Chemin de
Fer de l'Ouest (Western French Rail Road) in 1854 are a powerful
presence in this case because of their condition--twisted and rent
by bombings during World War II.

A later case in this section focuses on Vattemare as a numismatist
and includes a copy of 'Souvenirs Numismatiques de la Revolution
de 1848' (which he sent to the BPL in 1862) and the manuscript 'Du
Systeme Monetaire aux Etats Unis from 1851', and the BPL's copy of
the famous 'Collection de Monnaies et Medailles de L'Amerique du

This is supplemented with a number of numismatic items from the BPL
collection as examples of the subject of that work. They include a
plaster Libertas Americana medal with painted gold highlights by
Dupre and Esprit-Antoine Geblein, and a number of bronze Comitia
Americana medals (Washington, Jones, Morgan, and Green). Also included
is an 1806 Peace Medal from the Madison administration and a hub for
the central design of the Morgan medal (this is identified as a die
on the label but I don't see how it can be--the design is raised).

The rest of the Cabinet section of the exhibition gathers up a number
of objects that represented the United States at the 1855 World's Fair
in Paris where Vattemare acted as the agent for a number of States.
These range from mineral specimens to standards for weights and measures,
stuffed birds, an alcohol heated iron, iron mooring toggles, and other
industrial items. There are also ship models and an 1845 Springfield
carbine rifle. Most of this material remained in Paris after the
fair and entered various museum collections there.

The next section of the exhibition focuses on Vattemare's trips to
North America and includes a case of material related to his trip to
Canada, a case focusing on George Caitlin's illustrations of American
Indians, some of whom became his friends (as did the artist). There
is a also a large panel displaying various commissions and commendations
from the Federal and State governments that recognized him as an
official agent for cultural exchange.

The final sections focus on the history of the BPL and the
Administrative Library of the City of Paris, where Vattemare
was instrumental and include large selections of books from the
library exchanges. Many of these are open to their inscriptions
but the bindings are also beautifully embossed with their cities
and states of both origin and destination.

This is a wonderful little exhibition and so dense with material
to see and read that it could have stopped here and been very
satisfying. But there is one more section focusing on the growth
of the French collections at the BPL after Vattemare's death to
show that his legacy continued. This includes a small case of
Frankliniana that has some numismatic elements in it. There is
a ceramic portrait medallion circa 1782 (very similar to ones
usually attributed to Nini but the label does not identify the
artist) and a sketch by Dupre for his Franklin medal of 1783.
There is also a pair of obverse and reverse die trials for a
small medal of Franklin which includes one of the dies. This
is identified on the French label but not the English one.

Because this exhibition opened first in Paris at the Bibliotheque
Forney in January and was organized with the Paris Bibliotheques,
there are two labels for each object and section of the exhibition
(one in English and one in French). Interestingly, they are often
not the same. My French is pretty weak, but it was obvious with
the Franklin case mentioned above and areas where the length of
texts varied a great deal. Given that this is an exhibition of
largely archival materials there is a lot to read on the objects
themselves as well as the walls!

There are also two catalogues for the exhibition, one in French
and the other in English, and they are only available in paperback
(for $38). I haven't spent much time with my copy yet but I do think
it was worth the buy. Obviously it goes into greater depth than
the exhibition and it is generously illustrated.

Since the book does not appear on Amazon or anywhere else that it
can be "browsed", here is a short list of the contents. It is divided
into two sections, the first covering Vattemare's biography (Alexandre's
Adventure) and then a series of essays by a dozen or so different
authors, including a short essay (five pages) on Vattemare and
Numismatics by Alan Stahl.

Other essays include:
* Alexandre Vattemare-- Ventriloquist by Stephen Connor;
* Vattemare's Album cosmopolite by Suzanne Nash;
* At the Heart of Vattemare's System: the Central Agency for
   International Exchanges by Martine Deschamps;
* Vattemare and the Smithsonian Institution by Nancy Gwinn;
* The Paris Exposition Universelle of 1855 by Helene Harter;
* Vattemare and the Transatlantic Dissemination of Photographic
  Practices by Claude Baillergeon;
* Alexandre Vattemare and Reciprocal Knowledge by Alain le Pichon;
* The American Library of the City of Paris by Pierre-Alain Tilliette;
*  Public Libraries: Origins of a Definition by Cecile Oulhen;
* Free to All: the Boston Public Library and the Beginnings of
  the Public Library Movement in America by Earle Havens;
* a postface called Composite Portrait of my Cosmopolitan Double
  Ancestor by Yann le Pichon.

A big part of what makes the book interesting (beyond the subject)
is that it includes so many contributions by French scholars that
give perspectives that might be otherwise hard to find in English.
Different perspectives on history are always interesting although
so far I have had one cringe when one of the essays says that the
"Indian cultures of North America have virtually disappeared
without a trace"...

If anyone is interested in the book it can be obtained from the
business office of the Boston Public Library (payment by check
only) for $38 plus $5 for shipping (in the US). The English version
is catalogue number 449 on their list. They can be reached by phone
at (617) 536-5400 x 2346.

[Many thanks to Patrick for being our eyes and ears at the exhibit,
which remains open through September 29, 2007. I was curious about
the exhibit catalogue and now I hope to add a copy to my library.
It's a shame it's not available in hardcover format.  I had called
earlier and was told to send my check to Boston Public Library,
Attention Denise, Business Office, P.O. Box 286, Boston, MA 02117.

  Wayne Homren, Editor

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