Most Americans have heard of Madam Marie Tussaud and her famous wax museums. What is unfair is that most of us have not heard of Patience Lovell Wright and her wax museums. She started the trend of sculpting wax figures of famous people in New York, took her traveling wax figure exhibit to London in 1772, and became so popular that the King and Queen of England posed for her.
Ben Franklin introduced her into society and it was said that she later repaid the favor by smuggling British secrets back to the colonies, hidden inside her wax figures.
The stories of spy activities may be only stories, but her artistic career was quite real and also quite remarkable. As a child, she and her sister taught themselves to sculpt figures out of clay, and after she married, she would mold figures out of bread dough to entertain her children. But when her husband died, she decided to turn her hobby into a career. That’s a common scenario these days but in 1769, there weren’t too many female entrepreneurs or professional artists. In fact, there weren’t too many male professional artists, either. She is considered to be the first professional American sculptor.
And she worked in tinted wax. Her usual method was to sculpt heads in her lap, concealing them under her apron while she spent hours talking with her subjects. Her work was soon much in demand, and she decided to create a set of wax figures of famous people, and then take her show on the road. And on the boat to London.
She achieved remarkable fame and success in a very short period of time. Prime Minister William Pitt posed for her – and her wax version of him still stands in Westminster Abbey. The King and Queen not only posed for her, but also allowed her to call them “George” and “Charlotte.” She soon fell out of royal favor, however, because of her support for the American colonies during the War for American Independence. She moved on to France in 1780, but did not meet with the same success, possibly due to competition from a wax sculptor Dr. Philippe Curtius and his young protege, Marie. Both Patience and Marie created wax figures of Ben Franklin during those years in Paris.
But what Patience really wanted to do was return to the brand new United States and sculpt a figure of George Washington. She wrote to ask whether he would sit for her and legend says that he wrote back telling her he would be honored to do so. But unfortunately, she died before she was able to make the trip home.
Her skill was remarkable and she achieved fame and artistic reputation in her lifetime – not too many artists meet with such success. Yet now she is just a footnote in history.
I wonder if she would have achieved more lasting fame if she had sculpted in clay rather than wax, which we associate with cheap sensationalism (thanks to the descendants of Marie Tussaud). Or if she would have been taken more seriously as an artist if she had been a man. Not that there’s any evidence that she wanted to be taken seriously – she was a noted eccentric and evidence suggests she was more interested in commercial success than artistic praise. But she deserves some anyway. So here’s to the first professional American sculptor and her wax wonders.