What great contribution has Medallic Art Company made to the world of Art? For eight decades the firm served American sculptors by rendering their bas-relief creations in any permanent form those artists required – be that relief plaques in the exact size as their original model, or, by pantographic reduction, to a die to strike multiple impressions – medals or plaquettes – in any size and composition required of that relief model.
The technology of electrogalvanic casting had existed in America, in somewhat crude form (powered by batteries) to make metal copies of sculptural reliefs, called galvanos. But it was employed in America in more refined form for art objects by Jules Edouard Roiné, a French-born sculptor specializing in bas-reliefs.
By applying commercial electric current, which had only recently become available in 1889 (thank you Thomas Edison), Roiné had a consistent supply of low voltage electric current necessary for depositing metal on an artist’s pattern. A tank was required to hold an electrolyte solution, plus a supply of copper metal (from anodes which supplied copper molecules to form the cast piece).
By 1894 Roiné had gathered all the equipment, chemicals and technology knowledge necessary to produce electroforms. He cast his relief model, Marguerite Delpech Plaque, that year, believed to be his first galvano production, at least in America. Where he learned that technology, we do not know for certain. But we strongly suspect it was back in France under the tutelage of Frederic Vernon, who had been producing bas-relief galvanos as early as 1889. Vernon had 28 of the 48 items he submitted to the 1910 Exhibition of Contemporary Medallic Art at the American Numismatic Society were galvanos.
The technology of electrogalvanic reproduction of medallic items was well established by 1910. As 346 items of 2,052 items total on exhibit (17%) were galvanos. (The others were struck, cast or hand engraved.) The technique was widely used in France, as acceptance by artists elsewhere was beginning to occur.
Or perhaps Roiné learned of this technique from Louis Oscar Roty, who was noted for training other medalists. Roty had 82 items on exhibit at ANS in 1910, with only two galvanos, preferring foundry casts instead. So he was aware of the technology to pass on this knowledge.
Roiné and Weil Partnership. Irrespective of where Roiné learned the skill of making galvanos from his bas-relief models, by the 1910 ANS Exhibition he was active in its use. Also he had just joined with Felix Weil the previous year to form the sculptural partnership of Roiné, Weil and Company.
This partnership was ideal. Not only were the two Frenchmen friends, their skills complimented each other. Roiné was kept busy designing and modeling, Felix Weil was kept busy manning the tanks. He quickly gained skill in electrogalvanic casting. This was not an easy task because of the many variables: chemical composition of the electrolyte solution, its temperature, pH factor, and control of the electric current.
Roiné modeled in clay. Either one of them could make a plaster cast from the clay model. The image on the plaster cast was coated with powered graphite. This is where the copper will deposit and build up to make the solid copper galvano. The plaster would serve as the core pattern (called a mandrel in electroforming parlance) upon which ions of copper would leach from the copper anode and deposit on the pattern (which would be the cathode).
The core pattern would be wired in contact with the graphite with a wire to be attached to a bus bar over the tank from which the prepared pattern was hung. The copper anodes were hung from another bus bar at the side of the tanks to descend into the electrolyte solution. This was prepared to contain copper ions in the solution, as well as cyanide to aid the deposition.
Since electricity from an outlet is alternating current, a rectifier is necessary to change AC to DC and to lower the voltage. A complete circuit is required. Once the electric current was turned on it travels from the rectifier to the bars at the side of the tank to the anode, through the solution, onto the cathode, up the connecting wires to the overhead bus bar back to the rectifier. It required three days or more to build up the copper medal thick enough to sustain a permanent galvano.
Felix became a master electroformer, with a required knowledge of chemistry, metallurgy and electricity.
Early success. That first year Roiné and Weil prospered for all the activity in New York City in 1909. Not only was it the Hudson-Fulton Celebration, a year-long activity honoring Henry Hudson and Robert Fulton, it was also the centennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Plaques, badges – and medals! – were required of both.
Where a medal was required Roiné would design and model, Felix would make a dieshell – by the same process as making a sculptural plaque. The only difference: a dishell was made from a positive model, a plaque was made from a negative model. The electroforming process reverses polarity.
For a medal job Felix would then deliver the required dieshell to brother Henri at his workshop blocks away in lower Manhattan. In 1909 Henri still worked for the Deitsch Brothers (he didn’t acquire the Medallic Art Company until the following year).
Henri mounted Felix’s dieshell on the Janvier he operated in the Deitsch workrooms, cutting a die the required size. The pair would do this for both obverse and reverse. Once the dies were cut and approved, Henri would contract the striking of the medals to one of the metalworking shops nearby [Felix mentions the name Leidel as such a shop in his memoirs]. The struck medals were delivered to Henri who would them “color” them.
This took the form of sandblasting, relieving, or torch finish, as required by the customer, with a final step of a light lacquer coating to preserve the patina and protect the metal surface.
Roiné and Weil made six works that first year for Hudson-Fulton and at least ten for the centennial of Lincoln’s birth. They weren’t limited exclusively to making models for brother Henri at Medallic Art. They even made models and dieshells – but only one each – for Davisons in Philadelphia, and Whitehead & Hoag in Newark.
History of electrolysis in America. A German physicist and engineer working in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Moritz Herman Jacobi (1801-1874) develops the electrolysis process he called “galvanoplasty” in 1837. Three years later in England John Wright, a Birmingham surgeon conducted chemical experiments and developed the use of potassium cyanide in the electrolyte solution (replacing earlier acidic solutions).
In 1840 British cousins George Richards Elkington and Henry Elkington, working with and using John Wright’s process deposit a contrasting coating of metal on a base metal to effect electroplating. They receive the first British patent for silverplating, marking the date 1840 the first commercial development of electroplating. Such early electroplating was done with primitive batteries.
In 1842 Franklin Peale makes the first electrotype in America at the Philadelphia Mint of the Anthony Wayne Stony Point Medal (Julian MI-3) perhaps as early as January 1842. He had undoubtedly learned this technology at mints in Europe. That same year other electrotypes made at the Mint by William E. Du Bois (1810-1881) of rare coins in the Mint collection to illustrate a book by Eckfeldt and Du Bois, A Manual of Gold and Silver Coins of All Nations published in 1842.
These electrotypes Du Bois made served as patterns to be mounted in an instrument similar to a rulling machine to prepare drawings – the process known as anaglpytography. The drawings exhibit the rise and fall of relief on the patterns. By using electrotypes the original coin or relief was not damaged by the tracing stylus.
Outside the Mint, in Waterbury, Conn. Scovill Manufacturing, in 1844 became the first American firm to import electyrolysis process for electroplating. It uses this technology to plate copper, silver, nickel, zinc replacing the firegilding process of antiquity that the firm used as early as 1820. More than likely Scovill acquired this technology from England and the Elkingtons.
The electroplating process for the tableware industry is brought to America, acquired from the Elkingtons in England by Rogers Brothers in 1847 who incorporate this date in their trademark.
Beginning in 1851 of an active period of electrotyping of U.S. coins at the Philadelphia Mint mostly by William E. Du Bois for various purposes. Later that decade saw the first use of electroplating in the jewelry industry in America for the production of costume jewelry.
But the most notable use in America was made by a New York City electrotyper and gilder Samuel H. Black (active 1859-61). He fashioned plaques – some as large as 18 x 13 inches – from existing medals adding extensive lettering. He also made store-cards smaller than one inch. These were made in either of two ways: (1) he strikes or cast these in lead and copperplates, or (2) he makes copper shells and backs with lead fill-in.
The technique declined then for two decades. Not until 1884 was it resurrected by Alfred Vester when he established Providence Galvanic Art Company with Antonin Tabouret. It became the first active private firm in America devoted entirely to electroforming. The firm was in business until 1896 (in 1890 John Garst brought in the firm).
Previously a diesinker in Providence, Rhode Island, Vester was somewhat self-taught as an electrotyper. We have record of only two medals the firm produced – 1884 New Orleans World’s Industrial and Cotton Centennial Exposition Medal (HK 144) and 1886 Providence Rhode Island Mayor Thomas Arthur Doyle Memorial Medal – but unaware of any other galvano products.
Medallic Art Company’s early galvanos. Other than Roiné’s productions before and after the turn of the 20th century, little was made of this technique in America. As onetime sculptors’ assistants both Henri Weil, working alone, and Felix Weil, with partner Jules Edouard Roiné, were ideal candidates to encourage the use of this technology among the sculptors of their acquaintance.
The trio were still active among the New York City circle of sculptors early on in the 20th century. News of their new and useful technique spread among the field’s practitioners. Sculptors had a choice of sending their bas-reliefs to a local foundry – or even to Gorham in Providence – to be foundry cast. Or they could turn over to their reliefs to the Weils to be electrolytically cast. They had somewhat the only game in town.
The cost between the two methods of reproduction were similar, but there was a dramatic difference in detail. Because of the nature of molten metal, foundry casting could reproduce detail down to a 100th of an inch. Electrolytic casting could reproduce detail down to the width of a molecule!
For large reliefs, as for the sides of buildings or monuments, such detail was unnecessary. But for smaller reliefs – and for medals! – such minute relief was a blessing. Sculptors learned it gave a sharp, crisp edge to their reliefs which often improved the total appearance.
They learned the mantra: “If it’s in the model – meaning even the tiniest detail – it’s in the medal.” That held true for plaques as well.
The same artists who had medals made by the Weils – both during the time when Henri was working alone, and 1915 when Felix joined him after his partner Roiné became ill and went back to France – also had the Weils make their plaques.
Present situation. Unfortunately the galvanos were never cataloged by the company. We have record of virtually every medal the company made – the author was charged with this responsibility 1966-76 – but we do not have this knowledge about the galvanos. And yet these plaques have now found their way into museums and collectors’ hands.
While a great may dies are in the company’s die vault, the galvano molds are only those made of metal and only a portion of the galvanos made over the years. A few original plaster molds may be in the vaults but since plaster is not permanent even these may not be serviceable or even recognizable.
The last time the author saw these galvanos was in an airplane hangar in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. To his credit, Bob Hoff, owner of the company at the time, had rented a vacant hangar, directed an employee to lay these out to be organized, and made a computer entry for each of these. This is the “G-number” in the company’s archives databank.
Yet the task remains for these galvano reliefs to be cataloged by a person knowledgeable in art. These are, indeed, art objects of the finest form, by the finest American sculptors of the 20th century.
These galvanos are, indeed, the greatest contribution of Medallic Art Company to the field of American Art.