Recent Acquisition: Wax Portraits by Ethel Mundy
Last year, the Everson acquired two wax portraits of Vera S. Bragg and her daughter Polly by miniaturist and Syracuse native Ethel Mundy (1876-1964). Mundy 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 and eventually launched her miniature career by sculpting her friends and family. 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. Along with the Whitneys and Morgans, 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, 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. To create the miniatures, Mundy first traced the outline of her subject onto a metal plate and then built up the sculpture by adding tiny bits of colored wax until she had a complete portrait. She used hand tools—many she made herself and some provided by her dentist—to create the delicate textures and modelling. Polly donated the miniatures to the Everson in 2019, where they joined twenty-four other Mundy works in the Museum’s collection.
-Steffi Chappell, Assistant Curator Check out this previous blog post discussing a letter Director Anna Olmsted wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, extolling Mundy’s talents and recommending her to create portraits of Roosevelt’s grandchildren.