Modeling wax likenesses, like watercolor painting and embroidery, was considered an acceptable form of artistic accomplishment for women in the Enlightenment. Patience Wright, however, brought what can only be called notoriety to her chosen art form. The notorious Mrs. Wright, a widow with three children to support and a talent for making money from her talents, was famously called “the queen of sluts” by Abigail Adams. Whether this was a response to a personal remark made by the artist, or a general observation about Mrs. Wrights’ character, is not recorded. Patience Wright did, however, do a brisk business at her London wax works studio—an exhibit which predated Madame Tussaud’s by a good thirty years.
Patience Wright was originally from Philadelphia, and exhibited her wax figures widely in the colonies before a fire destroyed her work while on display in New York. Benjamin Franklin encouraged her to come to London, where he introduced her to members of London society, whom Mrs. Wright had, it seems, no trouble cultivating.
A 1772 article in the Virginia Gazette describes Mrs. Wright’s working methods: “…this peculiar excellence of forming men and women in wax was reserved by the goddess of nature for the superiour [sic] genius of America; and when we consider to what an amazing perfection she has brought this art, it rather perplexes our understanding to see compositions so immediately like ourselves. I mixed with a variety of fashionable people, who frequent this repository of curiosities, and I could not help smiling to hear and see her at work; for while the head lies upon her knee it hath so strongly a human appearance, that, at the first sight, it looks like a fresh head severed from the body. But the manner of her working up the features is wonderful; she always covers the wax with a cloth, and while the wax is warm and soft, and equal to any impression, she raises or depresses it at pleasure, and some of the strongest likenesses she hath done from memory only…”
Pictured: Patience Wright working on a wax figure, circa 1775. From http://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/the-madame-tussaud-of-the-american-colonies-was-a-founding-fathers-stalker-180948610/?no-ist