REPOUSSÉ (Fr. “driven back”), the art of raising designs upon metal by hammering from the back, while the “ground” is left relatively untouched (see Metal Work and Plate). The term is often loosely used, being applied indifferently to “embossing.” Embossing is also called “repoussé sur couille” and “estampage,” but the latter consists of embossing by mechanical means and is therefore not to be considered as an art process. Moreover, it reverses the method of repoussé, the work being done from the front, and by driving down the ground leaving the design in relief. Gold, silver, bronze, brass, etc., being easily malleable metals, are specially suitable to repoussé, which at the present day, in its finer forms, is mainly employed for silver-plate and jewelry. The silver-plate in repoussé of Gilbert Marks (d. 1905) in England, and the portrait-plaques from life by Stephan Schwartz (b. in Hungary, 1851) in Austria, are noteworthy modern examples of the art.
Repoussé—a term of relatively recent adoption, employed to differentiate the process from embossing—has been known from remote antiquity. Nothing has ever excelled, and little has ever approached, the perfection of the bronzes of Siris (4th century B.C., in the British Museum), of which the armour plate—especially the shoulder-pieces—presents heroic figure groups beaten up from behind with punches from the flat plate until the heads and other portions are wholly detached—that is to say, in high relief from the ground of which they form a part. Yet the metal, almost as thin as paper, is practically of constant thickness, and nowhere is there any sign of puncture. The “Bernay treasure,” in the Bibliothèque Nationale, Paris, discovered in 1830, belongs to the 2nd century B.C., and includes silver vases of Roman execution decorated with groups in mezzo-relief, beaten up in sections and soldered together. The best of these, of which perhaps the finest is that known from its subject as “La nymphe de la fontaine Pirène et Pégase,” belong to the noblest period of Roman art. The Hildesheim treasure (discovered 1868) comprises a patera on the ground of which is a superb emblema representing Minerva in high relief. These repoussé emblemata were usually of another metal and applied to the vase which they decorated; indeed repoussé was of leading importance in caelatura, or the metallic art (statuary excepted) of classic times. Thus the patera of Hildesheim, the patera of Rennes, and the earlier shoulder-plate of the Siris bronze may be accepted as illustrative of the highest development of repoussé.
The art was not only Greek and Graeco-Roman in its early practice; it was pursued also by the Assyrians, the Phoenicians, and other oriental peoples, as well as in Cyprus and elsewhere, and was carried forward, almost without a break, although with much depreciation of style and execution, into medieval times. In the 11th century the emperor Henry II. presented as a thank offering to the Basel cathedral the altar-piece, in the Byzantine style, decorated with fine repoussé panels of gold (representing Jesus Christ with two angels and two saints), which is now in the Cluny Museum in Paris. Up to this time, also, repoussé instead of casting in metal was practised for large work, and Limoges became a centre for the manufacture and exportation of sepulchral figures in repoussé bronze. These were affixed to wooden cores. By the time of Benvenuto Cellini the art was confined almost entirely to goldsmiths and silversmiths (who, except Cellini himself, rarely cast their work); and to them the sculptors and artists of to-day are still content to relegate it.
The elementary principle of the method, after the due preparation and annealing of the plate, was to trace on the back of it the design to be beaten up, and to place it face downwards upon a stiff yet not entirely unresisting ground (in the primitive stage of development this was wood), and then with hammers and punches to beat up the design into relief. According to Cellini, his master Caradosso da Milano would beat up his plate on a metal casting obtained from a pattern he had previously modelled in wax; but he is not sufficiently explicit to enable us to judge whether this casting was hollow mould, which would result in true repoussé, or in the round, which is tantamount to repoussé sur coquille, or embossing.
Nowadays the plate is laid upon and affixed to a “pitch-block,” a resinous ground docile to heat, usually composed of pitch mixed with pounded fire-brick, or, for coarser work such as brass, with white sand, with a little tallow and resin. This compound, while being sufficiently hard, is elastic, solid, adhesive and easy to apply and remove. Gold and silver are not only the densest and most workable but the most ductile metals, admitting of great expansion without cracking if properly annealed. The tools include hammers, punches (in numerous shapes for tracing, raising, grounding, chasing and texturing the surfaces), together with a special anvil called in French a recingle or ressing, in English “snarl.” The recingle, or small anvil with projecting upturned point, was known in the 16th century. This point is introduced into the hollow of the vase or other vessel such as punch and hammer cannot freely enter, which it is desired to ornament with reliefs. A blow of a hammer on that part of the anvil where the prolongation first projects from it, produces, by the return spring, a corresponding blow at the point which the operator desires to apply within the vase. The same effect is produced by the modern “snarl” or “snarling iron”—a bar of steel, with an inch or two of the smaller end upturned and ending in a knob—held firmly in a tightly screwed-up vice, whereby the blow is similarly repeated or echoed by vibration. The repoussé work, when complete, is afterwards finished at the front and chased up. The same vase, to be worked up by embossing, would be filled with “cement” and laid on a sand-bag, and finally the whole would be heated and the cement run out. In the case of repoussé the vase itself may be beaten up out of the metal on the pitch-block. It must be understood that in order to obtain a result not merely excellent in technique but artistic and unmechanical in effect, the blows of the hammer must be made with feeling and “sentiment,” otherwise the result cannot be a work of art.
See C. G. Leland, Repoussé Work (New York, 1885); and Gawthorp, A Manual of Instruction in the Art of Repoussé (London, 2nd ed., 1899). (M. H. S.)