Miniature Wax Sculptures at the Philadelphia Museum of Art: A Technical Study, Treatment, and Gallery Presentation

Nicole M. Passerotti, Beth A. Price, Cathleen Duffy, Alexandra Letvin, and Melissa Meighan


The Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) has one of the largest and most distinguished European portrait miniature collections in America. The collection comprises painted miniatures and waxes, both low relief and small sculptures, dating from the 16th to the 20th centuries. As part of a ten-month Samuel H. Kress Fellowship, the conservator worked closely with curators in order to establish joint priorities, to define consistent terminology, and to survey 190 waxes in the collection. In addition to the survey, exchange with colleagues, and visits to collections including the V&A and the Wallace Collection among others, the project culminated in the technical study, treatment, and recommendations for the long-term care of the wax collection. Eleven waxes were chosen to investigate materials, fabrication, and condition. The group selected for analysis included waxes from England, France, Germany, and Italy, manufactured between the 16th and 19th centuries. Samples from each of the eleven objects were analyzed using Fourier transform infrared microspectroscopy, scanning electron microscopy with energy dispersive spectroscopy, and pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to characterize the waxes and the colorants used in the creation of these objects. From the eleven objects analyzed, seven waxes then were selected for treatment. The objects represented a range of treatments that will provide guidelines and methodologies for future conservation of the collection. Conservation treatment included structural repairs, compensation, and cleaning informed by the Modular Cleaning Program. The conservator and the curator worked in concert to prepare a focused installation, repurposing a free-standing floor case in a dedicated miniatures gallery. The case features recently treated waxes with their respective x-radiograph images, encouraging visitors to look more closely and consider how these delightful objects were made. The objects chosen for display highlight three major methods of manufacture: hand-built on metal armature, mold made with known multiples, and a pre-fabricated mold designed for amateur artists. This study is a model for collaboration between curators, conservators, and scientists. The result of the project has been a contribution to the wax miniature scholarship, specifically to the materials used and the methods of fabrication. The study also has informed the treatment of these delicate objects in a sensitive and confident manner.

2019 | Uncasville | Volume 26