Hammering out the art of repousse
Making objects out of metal has an absurdly long history. The Bronze Age (approximately 3300 BC to 1200 BC) is so named because it marks the time when human metallurgists figured out how to combine copper and tin, opening up a new world of functional possibilities.
Making metal look pretty is another thing altogether. It is quite literally a different set of skills, and one of the most important of those skills is repousse. Derived from a French word that translates as “to push out,” repousse [pronounced ruh-poo-SAY] combines the brute strength of the hammer blow with the gentle touch needed to create patterns in metal that are long-lasting and visually appealing. The art really is in the detail.
You might think you’ve never seen repousse, but you’d likely be wrong. Examples of the metal technique are hard to miss. The skin of the Statue of Liberty was produced in repousse. The golden death mask of King Tutankhamun, the star attraction of the still-legendary King Tut museum exhibit, was also fashioned in repousse. And if you’ve served tea to your guests with a gorgeous antique silver tea service presented on an elaborate sterling silver tray? Yes, one or more or all of those pieces were almost certainly works of repousse.
The repousse process begins with a sheet or plate of copper, bronze, steel or alloy, and also precious metals such as gold or silver. Three-dimensional designs require sheets with sufficient depth to be hammered into the desired shape. For example, the Statue of Liberty was made from about 300 separately hammered copper sheets that were each 3/32 of an inch thick, equivalent to the width of two Lincoln pennies.
Each metal plate, no matter its size, must be softened just enough to allow it to be malleable when hammered. This technique, known as “annealing,” has the artisan hold the sheet over a hot fire to loosen up the metal. Then the sheet is hammered in bas relief, following a pattern drawn upon it. To create monumentally large works such as the Statue of Liberty, softened copper sheets were hammered over a wooden mold. Pieces for use in comprising smaller works are usually placed over compacted sand, or a heated putty-like substance called “pitch,” to absorb the hammer blows. The artisan swings the hammer many, many times before the three-dimensional design starts to emerge.
Repousse has a diametric opposite in chasing, a technique that gains its name from a French term meaning “to drive out.: Repousse designs are created on the reverse, or back side, of a metal plate, while chasing relies on specially designed punches, some blunt and some sharp, to push the metal inward from the front. The depth of the punch helps to create the effects of depth and distance, as well as ornamentation and texture, one carefully placed punch at a time.
Of course, chasing is also its own art form, seen on metal pieces to include decorative cups, vases, jewelry and plate ware. But it’s common for both repousse and chasing to appear on the same piece, especially when the artisan wants a startlingly realistic life-like appearance for ceremonial pieces such as the death mask of Tutankhamen.
Learning repousse and chasing requires “… a lot of skill, a lot of energy, knowledge of application of force, and an intuitive sense of where everything was,” said Maureen Drdak, who studied with the great Nepalese repousse master Rabindra Shakya. She remembers that she “… picked up a hammer and sat down at the anvil [and] realized making a straight line was nearly impossible,” according to a 2019 interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
While the art of repousse has been practiced for millennia, it became prominent in Europe during the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries, particularly in silversmithing and gold work. Complete tea sets with repousse scrollwork and charged armorial bearings were a fixture in the homes of merchants and wealthy families, and were handed down for generations. Tea sets from these centuries are sought after at auction, especially if the set is complete.
The Greek Revival period that enraptured America in the early to late 19th century included Greek-inspired repousse silverwork, which is frequently seen at auction. Repousse tea sets, flatware, chargers, candle sticks, boxes, mirrors and picture frames were routinely produced by American silversmiths such as Paul Revere Sr., Bartholomew Le Roux, Cesar Giselein of Philadelphia, and Thauvet Besley.
In the aforementioned Philadelphia Inquirer interview, Drdak detailed how challenging and unforgiving repousse can be: “If you’re making a sculpture or statue from bronze or metal, you’re usually working with a model made out of malleable material made from wax or clay. You can correct the mold. Even after you cast the material, you can correct certain issues. But with repousse, you’re working on the finished piece, stretching it and compressing it. It requires you to be a master of the tools immediately.” In other words, repousse is not the sort of thing you can pick up in a few afternoons of practice. It’s the metallurgical version of working without a net: you can recover from a small slip-up, maybe, but big ones ruin the whole thing.
Yet, the art of repousse has remained popular for millennia precisely because of its complexity in form, design and presentation. It can withstand the ravages of time better than other art forms such as glass, ceramic or even fresco painting. Repousse combines exquisite artistry with the comforting heft and substance of metal. For that reason, it will always be a constant at auction.