For the first time in nearly a century, The Metropolitan Museum of Art is displaying a selection from its large collection of electrotypes, the metalwork reproductions that were among the first European decorative arts purchased by the Museum in the 1870s and 1880s. These highly sculptural and often monumental pieces were intended to represent to the American public the most ambitious examples of Mannerist and Baroque goldsmiths' work and to serve as inspiration for artists and manufacturers. They were made by electroforming, a technology first developed in the 1840s that produced an extremely precise copy of an original by running an electrical charge through a solution to deposit metal into a mold.
The exhibition includes approximately 110 works. The earliest purchases were made with the advice of the South Kensington Museum (now the Victoria and Albert Museum), whose director Henry Cole was a prime mover in an international project designed to distribute casts and copies "for the promotion of art" to museums across the world.
The "Convention for the International Exchange of Reproductions of Works of Art" was signed in 1867 by fifteen of Europe's reigning heads and introduced an era of international cooperation and intellectual openness, encouraging public access to royal treasuries that had traditionally been inaccessible. The largest group of electrotypes in the exhibition comprises copies of the so-called "Russian Treasures," the rich holdings of silver and gold housed in the Kremlin, the Hermitage, and Russian monasteries. The exhibition also includes electrotypes held by the Arms and Armor, Medieval, and Greek and Roman Departments of the Metropolitan Museum.
To fabricate the electrotypes, specialist mold makers from the Elkington Manufactory and Franchi and Sons traveled to sites across Europe. They returned to England with piece-molds made of gutta percha (a malleable latex derived from a Malaysian tree). The molds were used to produce copper patterns that would serve as the master model from which multiple copies could be made. Base-metal electrotypes could be patinated, silver plated, or gilt to more closely resemble the original work.
Also on view is Tiffany and Company's magnificent Bryant Vase, the first piece of American silver to enter the collection. Tiffany later produced several electrotyped copies of the vase, and those copper molds, along with an animated video, are on view in the installation to explain the electroforming process.
The electrotypes created a strong impression in the press when they were first exhibited in the Museum's galleries. The painting by American artist Frank Waller, Interior View of the Metropolitan Museum of Art when in Fourteenth Street, shows a gallery in 1879 with a sampling of the earliest acquisitions in situ. Some critics remarked that they were worthy of study while others complained that they represented only "barbaric luxury." By the early years of the twentieth century, as the Museum began to acquire original works of art of great quality, the electrotypes, like the Museum's plaster casts, were relegated to storage. Many museums deaccessioned their electrotypes, and the Metropolitan Museum is the only American museum today with an extensive collection that was acquired in the nineteenth century.