Wright, Patience Lovell (1725–1786)

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Wright, Patience Lovell (1725–1786)

American wax sculptor who was particularly popular in England. Born in Bordentown, New Jersey, in 1725;

died in London, England, on March 23, 1786; daughter of John Lovell and Patience (Townsend) Lovell; married Joseph Wright, in 1748 (died 1769); children: Mary Wright (who married Benjamin Van Cleef); Elizabeth Wright (who married Ebenezer Platt); Joseph Wright (1756–1793, studied with Benjamin West and was the first engraver and diesinker of the U.S. mint); Phoebe Wright (b. 1761, modeled for Benjamin West and married the renowned English portrait painter John Hoppner); Sarah Wright (b. 1769, died young).

One of the first American sculptors; opened one of the world's first successful wax museums; was commissioned to create wax works of many famous figures in America and England.

One of the first American professional sculptors, Patience Lovell Wright was born in Borden-town in colonial New Jersey in 1725, the daughter of prosperous Quaker farmers. She was raised a vegetarian by her devout father, who saw meat-eating as a sin, and who dressed all of his children in white. In 1748, when she was 22, she married a cooper, Joseph Wright of Philadelphia. Little is known about her years of marriage, except that she gave birth to five surviving children before her husband's death in 1769. As he left her little money, Patience was desperate for a way to support her children. Though she had always been artistically inclined, she had not pursued art seriously. Now she decided to launch a career as a sculptor, modeling well-known public figures in wax. Wright created a remarkably successful series of portraits, and made them into a traveling exhibit which was the first of its kind, charging the public to see them in Charleston, New York, and Philadelphia.

Wright's strikingly realistic wax sculptures were an instant success, but a fire destroyed most of them while on exhibit in New York in 1771. Nonetheless, she was encouraged to travel to England in 1772, where her works and her eccentric personality captivated spectators. She created popular exhibits representing contemporary English politicians, nobles, and actors, many of them introduced to her by her friend Benjamin Franklin. Wright seems to have deliberately cultivated a bohemian artist persona, and was known as the "American Sibyl"; when granted an audience with the British monarchs, she reportedly addressed King George III and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz as George and Charlotte. Abigail Adams once said of Wright, "her appearance is quite the slattern." Wax sculptures of contemporary figures were novelties in England, and she faced little competition (Madame Tussaud would not open the first wax museum for another 30 years). Among Wright's most important sitters was Prime Minister William Pitt, whose life-size sculpture was installed in Westminster Abbey after his death.

During the American Revolution, Wright corresponded with Franklin and sheltered American prisoners of war. She clearly enjoyed political gossip, which she shared with her British friends despite her patriotism. Her 1780 trip to Paris, where she hoped to open a wax museum, also found her meeting with Franklin to discuss her odd plans for fostering a rebellion in England and Ireland. Still, there is little evidence for the many legends of Wright's other exploits, such as that she acted as a spy for Franklin or that she sent military information to the Continental Congress by hiding letters in wax figures sent to her sister Rachel Wright Wells , who ran a wax museum in Philadelphia. Her plans for commercial success in Paris came to nothing; Philippe Curtius, uncle of the celebrated wax sculptor Madame Tussaud, had already captured the Parisian market for wax spectacles, and Wright returned to London in 1781.

One of her final works was an ambitious reproduction in wax figures of the meeting of peace commissioners following the war. Although Wright wanted to return to Pennsylvania before her death because she did not want "to have her native bones laid in London," she was in fact buried in London after her sudden death in March 1786. Her son Joseph Wright, elected to the British Royal Academy, became a well-known painter and wax sculptor.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 1971.

McClelland, Elizabeth. "Patience Lovell Wright: Sculptor," in Early American Life. April 1976.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Read, Phyllis J., and Bernard L. Witlieb. The Book of Women's Firsts. NY: Random House, 1992.

Laura York , M.A. in History, University of California, Riverside, California

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