A SMALL group of American sculptors, meeting in Washington DC in 1928, discussed the sad state of the art medal in America. No one was promoting such a class of medals and a previous attempt, The Circle of Friends of the Medallion, had ceased after only 12 issues in a brief existence 1909-1915.
Whether they were aware of such art medal series in France and Holland is not known but the seeds of such a series in America began to take root. The discussion continued in New York City and such a plan fell on eager ears of Clyde Curlee Trees, who had only recently acquired ownership of Medallic Art Company the year before in 1927. He would be only too happy to manufacture such art objects but could not sponsor it himself.
What was needed was an angel, a backer, a sponsor who could underwrite the expense of promoting such a venture, however magnanimous such an act for the art world would be. Trees was fortunate in finding such a person in art patron George Dupont Pratt.
Pratt was an amateur sculptor, the Weils, Henri and Felix, had reproduced one of Pratt’s sculptural creations, Mountain Goat, as a galvano medallion in 1914. George Pratt was the son of Charles M. Pratt who founded Pratt Institute Art School in 1887, long a Brooklyn organization for educating promising artists. He was active in art organizations and a trustee of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Would he become the backer Trees needed to launch a series of art medals? It would be a large philanthropic step but Trees was persistent. Pratt agreed and the two proceeded. Trees promotional ability and Pratt’s backing worked well.
The two found an willing artist, Laura Gardin Fraser, wife of James Earle Fraser, one of those who had been in the early discussion of such an American series. Laura Fraser prepared the models for the first medal.
Like the previous Circle of Friends, the new Society of Medallists would be sold on a subscription basis, two medals a year. The goal was to showcase American sculptors’ bas-relief art in a most appealing way. Each of the medals was to be given a different patina finish (an ambitious goal which had to be modified after about forty such patinas – the limit known at the time). Cost of a year’s subscription was nominal, only $6 for two medals. Promise of fine art in medallic form was attractive.
The launch occurred at the beginning of the Great Depression, however, it proved one fact, even in such a dour economic situation people longed for contact with Beauty, with Art. A miniature work of art in permanent metal they could in their hand filled that angst within their psyche.
Trees manage to sell 1200 initial subscriptions, an ample press run for his tiny shop. With Pratt’s backing Trees continued to promote the art medal series. In all, his Medallic Art Company would produce more than 3,000 Issue Number 1s — Laura Fraser’s Hunter and Turkey. A scene of familiar genre as the heads of many households found a Thanksgiving Dinner among the wild birds common in America.
America’s top sculptor masters are found among he names of the artists creating the early Society medals. Here we find Paul Manship, Hermon McNeil, Frederick MacMonnies, Lee Laurie, John Flanagan, Carl Paul Jennewein, Gatano Cecere, Herbert Adams, Lorado Taft – all giants in the field.
A sculpture from these artists could command thousands of dollars. One could obtain a medal – expressing their chosen art in their own style – for only a few dollars. The economy dictated a low price, but the cost of production was not that great once the models were obtained from the artist. Trees was able to eke out a tiny profit to keep his shop open, even as commercial commissions for medals dried up.
Portraits on Society medals were discouraged, but not prohibited. Issue #4 bore a portrait of nation aviation hero Chares Lindberg by MacMonnies. It was left unsaid what themes could appear on Society medals; the artists were at liberty to choose their own subject and treat it in any artistic way they wished.
What tended to appear were scenes from nature, animals, birds, mythological subjects, Biblical topics. Aviation and astronomy were popular. Subjects of current events, which seem important at the time tend to diminish with time. Hal Reed’s Atomic Energy of 1981 seems common place now days.
Creation was a popular theme, first presented by Anthony de Francisci in a swirling universe of unusual shape with silver patina. This was followed by Albert Wein, Donald De Lue, Katherine Lane Weems, and Joseph Coletti, each with their own interpretations of Creation in medallic form.
Trees was able to maintain continuity with two medals a year throughout the turbulent 1930s. There were times when the medal shop did not have enough commercial orders for medals that he had to send the employees home by noon, or whenever the little work they had on hand got done. He was thankful for the medals he had to produce for the Society.
The quantity diminished from that initial multi thousand first issue. It first went below a thousand in 1936. But what could have been the kiss of death was World War II. Bronze became a strategic war material, needed for war armaments and ammunition. Every shot in the war came from a copper shell casing.
Use of bronze for nonessential art medals was halted. Trees solved the problem – to his credit – by issuing two medals in the dept of the war years 1943 and 1944, in silver. Obviously in smaller size to offset the higher cost of silver.
An attempt was made to maintain the Society as a separate entity from Medallic Art Company. It used a mailing address of the National Arts Club in lower Manhattan – later the Architectural League on 40th Street — as a mail drop. This appeared on stationery, newsletters, advertisements, and return address on medals sent out. This was convenient because as soon as William Trees Louth (Clyde’s nephew) was hired in 1946, his wife was placed in charge of The Society and handled all the correspondence.
She had tired of this chore, so in the Fall of 1969 Bill Louth sought someone to replace her. He commuted from his home in Weston Connecticut to Manhattan each day, frequently had a seat companion of Harkness Cram, an account executive at J. Walter Thompson Advertising Ageny. The subject of The Society came up in conversation.
Harkness Cram was interested, volunteered his wife, Mary Louise Cram’s services, so in December 1969 Bill appointed the Crams as managers. They issued the 80th newsletter leaflet from their address, West Branch Road, Weston, Connecticut – the Society’s new address.
The following year, 1970, was the 40th anniversary of The Society. A contest was held for an anniversary medal, won by Atlanta sculptor, Julian Hoke Harris. The Crams oversaw the marketing of this medal.
With this success, Bill Louth charged the pair to increase the membership which by then had slid to 800 a year, and to increase the profitability of the medals since Medallic Art Company had, in effect, subsidized the Society for 40 years.
The Crams were able to push the membership back over a 1000. For increasing the profits they proposed to issue current medals in both bronze and silver. And, if Bill agreed, go back and reissue the early medals in silver.
At this time, Medallic Art was planning for the marketing of medals for the American Bicentennial in 1976. This, obviously, would be a great occasion for issuing medals, which, did indeed, prove true. But it was also a great occasion for Bill Louth (and the two other owners, Julius Lauth and Francis Trees) to sell the company.
They found a buyer in Donald Schwartz, who owned two other family companies. They did not need his full attention, he was looking for another small company he could manage full time. Medallic Art, with its potential for American Bicentennial business, was ideal. Schwartz raised the money among ten stockholders and the purchase was finalized January 1972.
The first major problem was that the plant in New York City was too small, the property was owned by the Trees family who wanted to sell and new equipment was needed. Ultimately a 22-acre site in Danbury Connecticut was found and a new plant was build which was completed in June 1972.
The Society of Medallists was part of the deal. It came with Medallic Art Company.
Silver medals were issued along with the bronze beginning 1973 (#87) and continued until 1979 (#100). Schwartz liked the idea of reissung the early Society issues in silver and this began also in 1973 and ran from #1 through #49.
A subscription for a membership received two bronze medals and the cost in 1972 was $16. Under Schwartz the membership cost rose (ultimately to $120 a year) the number of members fell. Sales of the silver, once as high as 250 fell to 50 in 1979. To save expenses Schwartz dismissed the Crams.
He replaced the Crams with retired museum official Joseph Veach Nobel as art director. Under Nobel’s influence he introduced a great variety of sculptural art into the series. But also included models by two foreign artists.
By this time, 1989, Bob Hoff acquired the Company, moved it to Sioux Falls South Dakota. Hoff attempted to continue the Society issues, but had not obtained the membership list in the acquisition. After issuing medals through #129 Hoff allowed the Society to cease.
Before I finish with this Introduction of The Society of Medallists I would like to relate some of the charming things found among these early medals.
Concordant. Issue #15 Love by Robert Ingersoll Aitken is like sculpture in-the-round – the reverse is the back side of the obverse figure – said to be concordant.
Hidden self-portrait. Issue #7 by Carl Paul Jennewein placed a tiny cartoon portrait of himself in his monogram signature.
Family affair. A father and son, and a husband and wife prepared Society issues. Adolph Weinman (#39) is the father of Robert Weinman (#69). Laura Gardidn Fraser (#1) is the wife of James Earle Fraser (#45).
Famous photograph. Issue #31 Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima was sculpted by Rene P. Chambellan after the famous World War II phtograph by T. Rosenthal.
Most charming of all! Cat and Mouse (#115) by Robert Weinman.