Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité:
A Celebration of Augustin Dupré and the Hercules 5 Francs Piece

On 30th June 1793, almost four years after the storming of the Bastille, the Club des Cordeliers (a political club of the French Revolution named after its meeting place in an old convent of the Cordelier nuns) passed a motion, "that householders will be invited, have painted on their house fronts, in large letters, these words: Unity, indivisibility of the Republic, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity or death." This rather lengthy exhortation was soon whittled down to the more memorable if less dramatic "Liberty, Equality, Fraternity"; and so the motto of the French Republic was born.

Two years earlier, in July 1791, one of the many acts to follow the end of the ancien régime, was the holding of an open competition by the French National Assembly for the post of engraver-general to the mint. Entries were judged by members of the Academy of Painting and Sculpture including the painter Jacques-Louis David. On the various trial and competition pieces submitted, images which were one day to become symbols of the French Republic appeared for the first time in French coin designs: the cockerel for vigilance, the fasces for strength, and the Phrygian cap of Liberty. In spite of competition from the likes of Benjamin Duvivier (1728-1819), an experienced artist who had been principal engraver to Louis XVI since 1774, the contest was won by Augustin Dupré (1748-1833). Dupré had been trained in the neo-classical school of David and his competition pieces still exist. From these, it is evident that Dupré's pieces had caught the spirit of the Revolution, unlike Duvivier, who still incorporated the fleur-de-lis of the ancien régime within his designs.

Once appointed, Dupré soon got to work producing a reworked head of Louis XVI for the coinage of the king's short constitutional monarchy which was finally abolished by the proclamation of the First Republic on 21st September 1792. The coin reverses depicted a fasces surmounted by a cap of Liberty within an oak wreath on the copper pieces, while on the silver and gold pieces, there appeared a beautifully imaginative representation of the winged Spirit (Le Génie) of France writing the constitution on the Table of the Law using the Pen of Reason.

After the abolition of the monarchy, the ruling National Convention commissioned Dupré to engrave dies for a new series of lower denomination coins in copper and bell metal. The instructions given in the Convention's decree of 26th April 1793 were precise. The coins were to bear:

"a table, on which will be inscribed the words: Les hommes sont égaux devant la loi [men are equal before the law]; above this table will be engraved a radiant eye; on one side will be engraved a bunch of grapes, on the other a sheaf of wheat. The legend will comprise two words: République Françoise; the exergue will indicate the year of the Republic in Roman numerals. The reverse of the coin will be engraved with a balance, the two pans of which will be level, attached to a civic wreath [i.e. an oak wreath]. The value of the coin will be engraved in the centre of the wreath. The legend will comprise two words: Liberté, Égalité; the exergue will contain the year in Arabic numerals."

Not much room for imaginative interpretation there!

Meanwhile, the wheels of the Revolution rolled inexorably forwards and on 21st January 1793 Louis XVI, now known simply as Louis Capet, bravely faced his inescapable fate and perished on the guillotine. Two years later, on 15th August 1795, the French Republic made a further break with the past and officially discarded its old LSD monetary system of livres, sols and deniers in favour of a decimal currency based on the unit of the franc which was divided into ten décimes of ten centimes each.

The first coins of the new currency to appear were copper décimes. These bore an obverse featuring Dupré's famous Liberty head design and a reverse with the denomination and date within an oak wreath. Interestingly, there are two possible contenders for the role of model for the Liberty bust. The first is Madame Tallien (1773-1835), formerly the noblewoman Comtesse Thérèse de Fontenay, who was saved from the guillotine by the revolutionary Jean-Lambert Tallien (1767-1820) before he married her in 1794. The second possible model is Madame de Récamier (1777-1849), a French hostess famed for her wit and charm and whose salon attracted most of the era's important political and literary figures (there are two well-known portraits of Mme de Récamier, by Jacques-Louis David and François Gérard). A smaller Liberty head design was later used on the 1 centime bronze piece.

The first of the new coins to be produced in precious metal was the silver 5 francs piece featuring Dupré's famous Hercules design. Engraved in the popular neo- classical style of the day inspired by republican Rome, this was Dupré's masterpiece. Hercules, long a symbol in art of strength, courage and endurance, was the ideal personification of Fraternity. Wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion which, in the legend of the twelve tasks, granted him the gift of invulnerability, he is flanked on either side by the allegorical figures in female form of Liberty and Equality on whose shoulders he rests his hands in a fraternal embrace. The motto of the Republic had found its pictorial representation on a medium which would now be seen by all citizens of France. Liberty, on Hercules' right, is shown holding a spear surmounted by a Phrygian cap - a symbol of liberty since Roman times when it was worn by emancipated slaves as a mark of their freedom (it was revived by the Revolutionaries as "the red cap of liberty"). On Hercules' other side stands Equality, holding a builder's level. The female figures are depicted clasping each others hands, completing the bond between the three concepts of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity in a perfection of symmetry.

The "Hercules" design on a 5 francs piece of 1848 (from the author's collection).

It took however several years and two more revolutions before the full motto "Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité" appeared on a French coin, and the early 5 francs pieces struck from Year 4 of the Republic (which commenced on 23rd September 1795) to Year 11 (which ended on 23rd September 1803) bore instead the short but cogent legend "Union et Force" (Union and Strength), perhaps an appropriate maxim for the Directoire, a constitution set up in October 1795 to restore law and order after the violent excesses of Robespierre's Reign of Terror.

On 9th November 1799, Napoléon Bonaparte launched his successful coup d'état, bringing to an end the ineffective rule of the Directoire and replacing it with a Consulate made up of three consuls. All real power now lay with the office of First Consul, a position readily taken by Bonaparte.

By 1803, the silver coinage had been redesigned by Pierre Joseph Tiolier (1763- 1819) to feature a bust of Napoléon in the style of imperial Rome. In the same year Dupré was replaced by Tiolier as engraver-general. This change in coin design provides an accurate reflection of the change in French rule from a republican ideal to an imperial one. Napoléon declared himself hereditary Emperor on 18th May 1804 and once again France had a monarch.

Augustin Dupré died in 1833 and his designs appeared no more on French coinage during his lifetime. Napoléon's falls from power in 1814 and finally 1815 saw the return of the Bourbon monarchy. The last French Bourbon king, Charles X, sealed his fate by attempting to restore the monarchy to its traditional rule by divine right, a concept which clashed badly with the will of a nation whose democratic spirit had been awoken by the Revolution. Forced to abdicate following the July Revolution of 1830, his throne fell to the more moderate Louis-Philippe, a descendant of Louis XIII. Though supported by the upper bourgeoisie, Louis-Philippe was never able to win over the industrial classes and in 1848 revolution struck again, forcing the king to abdicate. The Second Republic was born.

Dupré's Hercules 5 francs piece was again struck for the years 1848 and 1849 only. The design was changed slightly in that Liberty's spear was now surmounted by the Hand of Justice in preference to the original Liberty cap. For the first time however, the pictorial message was echoed in the legend "LIBERTE EGALITE FRATERNITE", a motto which appeared on all subsequent issues of the coin. Also struck again for a short period were the small bronze Liberty head 1 centime (1848- 1851), and the gold 20 francs featuring the Spirit of France (1848-1849). The fashion for Roman art had however waned by this time and Dupré's designs, perhaps only used until something more in keeping with the tastes of the day could be found, were soon discarded. Art inspired by ancient Greece was now in vogue and the Ceres head of Eugène André Oudiné (1810-1889) emerged as the image of the Second Republic.

On 2nd December 1852, France began its final flirtation with monarchy as Louis- Napoléon Bonaparte was crowned Emperor of France under the name Napoléon III. It took the disastrous experience of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71 to convince the French people once and for all that monarchy was not for them. Two days after Napoléon III's defeat and imprisonment at the battle of Sedan on 2nd September 1870, the Third Republic was proclaimed. Prussian forces meanwhile surrounded Paris and laid siege during the hard winter of 1870-71. An armistice was eventually signed on 28th January 1871 and a national assembly set up which was dominated by monarchists. The result was a civil war - the rebellion of the Paris Commune. The Commune lasted from the 18th March until 28th May, when government troops again controlled Paris after much bloody fighting. During this short period of insurrection, the Paris mint fell under the control of the Communard known as Citizen Camélinat. The only coin struck during this period was the Hercules 5 francs piece bearing Camélinat's privy mark of a trident. Although a mintage of 256,410 pieces was recorded, most of these coins were melted down after the fall of the Commune and examples are now rare.

As well as the 1871 Paris Commune issue, the Hercules 5 francs was struck annually during the Third Republic from 1870 until 1878 by the mints at both Paris and Bordeaux. The last time the image appeared on a silver 5 francs piece was on the rare proof issue of 1889. Dupré's Spirit of France was used again on the gold 20, 50 and 100 francs for various years from 1871 to 1898, 1878 to 1904, and 1878 to 1914 respectively, making its final appearance so far on the silver 100 francs of 1989 commemorating the Rights of Man.

From the time of the French Revolution to the commencement of the Third Republic in 1870, the Hercules 5 francs became something of an historical barometer for France's political troubles, making an appearance each time a republic was proclaimed, and marking three of the four revolutions which took place over that period.

In more recent times, the Hercules design has achieved a new generation of admirers, finding its way on to the silver 10 francs pieces issued from 1964 to 1973, as well as appearing on the silver 50 francs coins struck from 1974 to 1980. Utilised again on the cupronickel 5 francs of 1996, there seems no end to its popularity.

Perhaps the message of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity, first portrayed over two hundred years ago against the bloody backdrop of the French Revolution, reminds us of the suffering and determination experienced by ordinary people to achieve the democracies of the western world which we now take for granted.

This article, by Mish Webster, first appeared in the June 1999 issue of Coin News.