From the Archives: Anna Olmsted Writes to First Lady

On May 3, 1938, Anna Olmsted, 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.Mundy was born in Syracuse in 1876 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 studied for one year at Syracuse University and for two years with the Art Students League in New York City, as well as at the Mechanics Institute in Rochester and, for a brief time, with book designer, illustrator, and painter Amy Sacker in Boston. Mundy first learned about wax miniatures on a trip to Europe, and she returned home to Syracuse with plans to learn the art form. She began by sculpting her friends and family, and word of her skill spread quickly, resulting in early commissions from prominent members of society such as Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney and J.P. Morgan. 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, but Olmsted’s letter of introduction is evidence of her dedication to and support of Syracuse artists.

Letter from Malvina T. Scheider to Anna Olmsted, May 10, 1938. Everson Museum of Art archives.

-Steffi Chappell, Assistant Curator

Letter from Anna Olmsted to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, May 3, 1938. Everson Museum of Art archives