Alexandre Charpentier was born in a working-class Parisian neighborhood and raised amid the turmoil of the Franco-Prussian War. At the age of twelve, he was apprenticed to a decorative engraver, a path that led him to the Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied as a designer and engraver of medals in the early 1870s. Medals--small, low-relief sculptures that were presented as awards, distributed for publicity, and used as tokens of appreciation and commemoration--began to reach a wider popular audience in the nineteenth century. No one was more innovative in this field than Charpentier, who not only produced portrait medals of great variety, but also devised plaquettes that he adapted for use in furniture design and interior decoration, much of it in the sinuous ornamental style known as art nouveau.
Charpentier's ambition was to become a sculptor, but his incomplete elementary education prevented him from fulfilling the Ecole's rigorous requirements for that course of study. He abandoned the school before finishing his training as a medalist. His departure from the academy left him unencumbered by tradition and free to experiment with novel formats, styles, and subjects, working in a remarkable range of materials. Though he exhibited regularly at the official Salon and other well-established venues, he also participated in avant-garde circles in Brussels, Vienna, and Paris. Moreover, he was a noted figure in the radical, vernacular Parisian theater for which he designed playbills and sketched the leading actors and critics in clay.
In the early 1890s, Charpentier began making decorative objects and furniture. His studio in Paris became the focus of L'Art dans Tout (Art in Everything)--a group of designers, artists, artisans, and architects who collaborated on interior furnishings that they hoped would adorn not only the luxurious villas of their patrons, but also the public housing of the working class.