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Ethel Frances Mundy: An American Wax Portraitist

Ethel Mundy (1876-1964) is remembered for being a pioneer in revitalizing the field of wax miniature portraits in the United States and was known throughout the country and in Europe for her talent. Mundy was born in Syracuse to Emily King Kendall and Dr. Ezekiel Mundy, rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church and librarian of the Syracuse Public Library for over thirty years. She had a varied art education, studying at Syracuse University for one year before leaving to take classes at the Art Students League in New York City, where she spent two years studying with painter John Twachtman. Mundy also studied sculpture at the Mechanics Institute (today the Rochester Institute of Technology), and with book designer, illustrator, and painter Amy Sacker in Boston. In 1903, on a tour of Europe, Mundy encountered wax miniatures for the first time while visiting museums in Italy. Enamored with the technique, she spent the remainder of her trip learning all she could about wax portraits and 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 for pigmented wax modeling paste and eventually launched her miniature career by sculpting her friends and family.

Her technique involved taking a metal plate covered with a thin coating of wax, and outlining the subject in profile with a sharp point. Then slowly building up the figure with particles of beeswax tinted with various colors. . She used hand tools—many she made herself and some provided by her dentist—to create the delicate textures and modelling. The materials were not expensive, but her work was painstaking, so she only managed several commissions each year. In a letter dated November 29, 1928 seeking to arrange an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery, she states that her miniatures vary in size from four to nine inches in diameter and are best viewed with cross lighting.

Word of Mundy’s skill quickly spread and she began receiving commissions from prominent society members, including Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and J.P. Morgan. Portraits of children were Mundy’s specialty; Whitney commissioned a portrait of her daughter, and Morgan of his granddaughter. Throughout the next several decades, Mundy established herself as a talented wax miniaturist both in the United States and abroad.

article which appeared in Popular Mechanics of April 1921

On May 3rd, 1938, Anna Olmstaed, the Director of the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts

(today the Everson Museum), wrote a letter to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt extolling the talents of Ethel Mundy, a wax miniature portraitist from Syracuse. Olmsted, a constant champion of Syracuse artists, had known Mundy for many years and hoped to find her patronage from the White House.

By the time Olmsted wrote to the First Lady in 1938, Mundy had firmly established herself as a talented wax miniaturist both in the United States and abroad. Along with the Whitneys and Morgans, Mundy created portraits for Henry C. Frick, Andrew Mellon, and several members of the Guggenheim family. She did not lack for wealthy patrons, yet, as Olmsted wrote, “Above all things she would love to make portraits of our own Royal Family—of your lovely grandchildren, in particular. That you would be delighted with the results goes without saying and you would possess a real work of art and heirloom for the future.” On May 10, Eleanor Roosevelt’s secretary responded to Olmsted’s letter, writing, “Mrs. Roosevelt was very much interested to read about, and to see the pictures of the work done by Miss Mundy. She appreciates your bringing this to her attention and she will keep Miss Mundy in mind.” Ultimately, it does not appear that the First Lady ever commissioned Mundy to sculpt portraits of her family..

This close up of a wax relief of a child by Ethel Mundy gives hints of her modelling technique. The intricate detail of waves and curls of the child's hair were accomplished with a palette knife and dental tools.

She travelled all over the country to fulfill requests, and her miniatures were featured in solo exhibitions at many prominent museums during her lifetime, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C. Mundy sculpted the miniatures of Vera Bragg and her daughter Polly in 1933. Polly donated the miniatures to the Everson in 2019, where they joined twenty-four other Mundy works in the Museum’s collection

wax sculpture by ethel mundy
Wax sculpture of Vera and Polly Bragg

Her miniatures were very expensive, which shows how much time went into them. According to a price list from around 1928 her prices ranged from $400, $550, to $650 for the largest. When 1933 dollars are converted to 2022 dollars the $550 converts to around $10,000.

A film exists of Ethel Mundy at work! This film was made in 1930 and features Ethel's technique from beginning to end. A treasure!!

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