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A Brief History of Miniature Portraiture in Wax

The physical properties of wax have made it one of the most invaluable of all the artists materials. As a sculptor’s material in particular it has had various uses. As it is so easy to vary the consistency of wax by heat and by the addition of hardeners, plasticizers and solvents, it is possible to work it in all the traditional techniques of sculpture: modeling, casting, and carving. Wax is a very tractable material, permitting corrections, changes or additions to the design at any stage. This makes it an ideal modeling material, and the subtlety and translucency of it’s sculpted surface make it perfect for small scale, highly finished sculpture.

Wax was used as a direct modeling material in ancient civilizations. There are few ancient cultures around the world that did not at some point use wax to make tablets that were inscribed upon with a stylus, votive figures for religious ceremony, or amulets for protection or sympathetic magic. Wax has always had a place in metal casting, both as a model making material for mould making and also in the lost wax process. Jewelers and medallion modellers have used it because of the fineness of detail it permits and because of the ease with which such models can be cast in metal.

During the 16th century a new use of wax was initiated in Italy, which soon spread to other countries in Europe. Highly finished polychromatic portraits were modelled on a miniature scale and in a format very closely related to the arts of the medallion and cameo. It can be assumed that wax portraiture was borne of medallion modeling.Italian medallists developed techniques of producing coloured wax portraits by mixing the wax with pigments, with which they achieved astonishingly realistic likenesses of their subjects. Antonio Abondio was well-known as a medallist and court artist to the Holy Roman Emperors, he is generally accepted to be the first artist to work in wax in order to create a work of art from that material, rather than merely to use it as part of the sculptural process. He is therefore a key figure in the development of sculpting of wax, and in the history of portraiture. His development of the use of wax as a medium in its own right is also significant in its contribution to the formation of Kunstkammers and Cabinets of Curiosities. Wax was included in these collections because it was unusual and finely-worked.

Wax miniature of King Henry III of France, Antonio Abondio

c. 1590

Notice the seed pearls and semi precious stones that adorn his jacket.

In wax portraiture, artists found that with pigmented waxes they could render color, texture and detail of flesh, hair draperies in a high realistic manner. Because the art was reserved to aristocracy, jewels and precious metals were incorporated into these miniature masterpieces. Miniature portraits were intended to be viewed in intimate settings. They were popular gifts in noble and bourgeois circles, allowing the giver to establish a close personal connection with the recipient. Portrait medallions of royal rulers, on the other hand, primarily served political purposes or dynastic interests, by legitimising the claim of rulers, disseminating the image of the sovereign and ensuring that it would survive beyond their death.

The process of creating a miniature portrait could be achieved by implementing 2 two very different techniques; by casting the sculpture in wax from a mould and then painting the details with colored waxes, or by direct wax modelling, a process that involved sculpting the image with colored wax putty. There is evidence that both of these techniques were used in studying miniature portraits that have survived.

Another miniature by Antonio Abondio c. 1590. His mastery of fine metal work as a medallion maker and his mastery of wax portraiture are both evident in this extraordinary pendant.

Wax portrait of Minerva. Green gems adorn her helmet and earrings, as well as tiny cabochon pink gems on the cuff of her dress. She has small seed pearl details to her earrings, pin, head dress & the back of her helmet is also lined in the same tiny seed pearls.

Portrait of a lady, 16th century

Gold thread and seed pearls incorporated into her dress, veil and earrings.

Wax portrait of General Monk, Duke of Albermarle, about 1650.

In the 17th century this field was widened with the appearance of tableaux in the same manner. These 3 dimensional wax figures were arranged on a small scale depicting a scene, especially biblical, historical or mythological. Dramatic memento mori scenes rendered in wax were intended to inspire thoughts on mortality.

Group of four coloured wax reliefs, possibly by Giovanni Bernardino Azzolino, Italian, probably 1620s. Showing (from top left): Soul at Death; Soul in Purgatory; Blessed Soul; Damned Soul. V&A

An outstanding sculptor in this metier was the abate Gaetano Giulio Zumbo, who created elaborate allegorical tableaux on the theme of man’s mortality (Memento Mori) Toward’s the end of his life he developed a new use for this realistic handling of wax in the field of surgical anatomy. In the 18th century the techniques which had evolved were adapted to 2 new, more commercial fields- in the making of wax dolls and in the production of life size wax works such as those that still survive in the Tussaud collection.

Wax portraiture endured throughout the 18th and 19th century seeing minimal change to the actual technique. By this time wax portraiture had arrived in the United States. Throughout colonial America, molding tinted wax was a popular art form. While it was considered “lower-class” than sculpting with bronze or stone, it was cheaper to manufacture and gave the sculptures a more “life-like” quality. Patience Wright was a notable wax sculptress during this time.

Monochrome portrait of George Washington in wax attributed to Patience Wright

One of the last traces of the art form can be attributed to Ethel Mundy, an American that encountered wax miniatures for the first time while visiting museums in Italy. Enamored with the technique, she returned home to Syracuse with plans to master the art form. Challenged by the need to develop wax suitable for sculpting and retaining color, Mundy spent several years experimenting with different techniques, materials, and tools. She worked with a chemist to develop a successful recipe and eventually launched her miniature career by sculpting her friends and family. Throughout the next several decades, Mundy established herself as a talented wax miniaturist both in the United States and abroad. Mundy created portraits for Henry C. Frick, Andrew Mellon, and several members of the Guggenheim family. She travelled all over the country to fulfill requests, and her miniatures were featured in solo exhibitions at many prominent museums during her lifetime.

A film exists of Ethel Mundy creating a wax portrait! I have featured it on my Instagram feed and will post it here in a future article. It's wonderful. Ethel Mundy used the technique of wax modelling versus carving a wax casting.

Wax portraits by Ethel Mundy. Early 20th century

With the advent of photography, wax impressions were no longer necessary to preserve the image of a loved one or a notable individual and the art form fell out of popularity. The invention of synthetic polymers and plastics made the use of wax in sculpture and art less prevalent, and existing wax pieces are now often preserved so they are not lost to time.

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