America's first native-born sculptor, Patience Wright had for many years amused herself and her children by molding faces out of putty, bread dough, and wax. With the death of her husband in 1769, however, this domestic pastime blossomed into a profession, and Wright was soon earning her living as the modeler of portraits in tinted wax. By 1772, she was on her way to London, where she established a museum for displaying likenesses of England's current luminaries. The venture proved an instant sensation, and Wright, who enchanted London's elite with her New World egalitarianism and often profane speech, became known as the "Promethean modeller."
Patronized by George III, Wright fell from favor in royal circles thanks to her open support for the colonial cause during the American Revolution. It is also commonly believed that on a number of occasions she provided her rebelling former compatriots with intelligence related to British preparations to subdue them.
Typically, Wright fashioned her wax heads in her lap, concealing them under her apron while engaging her subjects and other visitors in conversation. This portrait by an unidentified artist bears graphic testimony to that procedure. Recalling Wright's secretive modeling techniques, the artist-historian William Dunlap added that there was "an energetic wildness" in the sculptor's manner as she worked.