Mundy, Ethel Frances - portrait of Katharine Morris Young

As suggested previously, miniature portraits are a much under-rated art form. And within that category, even more under-rated, and even rarer, are miniature portraits in wax. The most famous American wax portrait artist was Patience Wright (1735-1793), but others included Johann Christopher Rauschner (1760-c1830) and Robert Ball Hughes (1806-1868). However, the art died well before Hughes' death, a victim of the daguerreotype.

This wax example is by the American artist Ethel Frances Munday (1876-1964) and is the only example by her I have ever seen. The image inside the frame is 15cm (6 ins) in diameter. It was sculpted in 1934 and the sitter is Katharine Morris Young. [to date I have been unable to better identify Katharine and would be grateful to anyone with knowledge of her. Much later - by an amazing chance, the miniature has now been reunited with the sitter]. At the top it is inscribed "Katharine Morris Young - MCMXXXIV" and at the bottom "ETHEL MUNDY FECIT".

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 colours. The materials were not expensive, but her work was painstaking, so she only managed several commissions each year. I have a copy of a letter from her of November 29, 1928 seeking to arrange an exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery. In the letter she says her miniatures vary in size from four to nine inches in diameter and are best viewed with cross lighting.

Her work deserves to rank with the highest rank of 20C American miniature artists, such as Laura Coombs Hills and Eulabee Dix, but Mundy lacks that recognition as her work is so rare. It seems no major American museum has even a single portrait by her. As can be seen in the article which appeared in Popular Mechanics of April 1921, most of her works were of similar style, although she also made busts.
Showing here is a photograph of Ethel Frances Mundy which appears in a 32 page biography of Mundy written around 1968 by Anna Wetherill Olmstead, but now hard to locate. It contains much interesting background and a dozen further examples of her work. I also have copies of two of her exhibition catalogues, November 1928 at the Ackermann Galleries in Chicago, and the Corcoran Gallery in Washington in February 1929.

Ethel's father, Ezekiel Mundy was Librarian at the Syracuse Public Library. She was fascinated by displays of wax miniatures in Europe, but when she decided to emulate them, the art was already lost and the wax she tried to use was not suitable. Hence she worked for two years with Miss Elizabeth Mayer, head chemist of the wax department at Inness Speiden experimenting with various types of wax.

She commenced her art around 1910 and was immediately successful, continuing for another 40 years. She had a number of one-person exhibitions, but as almost all items listed in her 1928 show, were also displayed in the 1929 exhibition, it seems those items were not for sale, but displayed as examples to attract new commissions.

Her miniatures were very expensive, which shows how much time went into them. I have a copy of her price list from around 1928 and her prices ranged from $400, $450, $550, to $650 for the largest. For two portraits in a single background, she doubled the price, less a $50 discount. I do not know whether she reduced her prices as a result of the Depression, but I think the portrait displayed here is the $550 size and presumably was commissioned in 1933. When 1933 dollars are converted to 2010 dollars (using the $550 converts to $9230.

Given that kind of pricing, it is not surprising that her client list included;
Elizabeth Arden
Henry C Frick
Harry Guggenheim
Gertrude Lawrence
Andrew Mellon
J Pierpont Morgan
General George Patton
John D Rockefeller
William K Vanderbilt
Mrs Harry Payne Whitney
Thomas J Watson
and many others. The wealth of her clients, probably explains why her wax miniatures do not come on the market, now being family heirlooms. [I have a partial client list if anyone is researching Mundy]

According to Olmstead, Mundy worked from life and only ever executed two miniatures from photographs, one of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and one of Queen Elizabeth II, as Princess Elizabeth. These two wax miniatures were sold to raise funds for British Bundles for Britain during World War II and for the British Red Cross. Mundy served as a trustee of the Syracuse Museum of Art for 30 years. 1387

More recently two early miniatures by Mundy have been added, likely dating to around 1920. Both unsigned and unidentified, but clearly the work of Mundy. One is 5 1/2 inches and the other is 6 inches in diameter. The smaller one is fractured into several pieces, but is restorable. 1408a, 1408b.


Anonymous said...

Are wax miniatures susceptible to melting/softening in the summer heat? I have asked this question of UK miniatures dealers regarding 18th century wax portraits. They have said it is a definite concern. May I ask your opinion? Temperatures of say 85-100 degrees during the summer months. Thank You, K.

Don Shelton said...

I think you only need to be as careful as with ivory miniatures. Keep them out of direct heat or light. Most houses do not reach 100 degrees indoors. Provided they are covered with glass I do not see a problem. The glass would need to be quite warm to the touch, before it affected the wax.

skynyc said...

I just acquired a wax portrait of my mother dated 1930, which is not signed, but there's a note on the back of the original frame that says "Done by Ethel Mundy of Syracuse." My mom remembers that her cousin also had one done. It's so charming and can really SEE the subject in the portrait. Thanks for this information.