Before the Reality Effect: Wax Representations in Eighteenth-Century France

Charles Kang, M.A.

My project investigates the evolving notions of verisimilitude and objectivity during the Enlightenment. At the core of this inquiry is wax, which had three distinct phases as a representational medium over the course of the eighteenth century. In the latter years of Louis XIV's reign, polychrome portrait sculpture in wax enjoyed a brief period of noble patronage and renown. In the 1740s and 1750s, wax was at the center of a heated debate surrounding an attempt to resurrect ancient encaustic painting. During the revolutionary era, wax anatomical models played a crucial role in the reform of medical pedagogy. These case studies examine how artistic and non-artistic expertise intersected in the production and reception of wax objects. I demonstrate that the material operated as a testing ground for emergent forms of skepticism about naturalistic depiction and pictorial truth. By questioning the representational ability of wax, the visual arts, antiquarianism, and natural history articulated methods of establishing credibility and legitimacy as they evolved into modern, institutionalized, disciplines. My materially oriented thematic brings into conjunction areas of cultural production that are not traditionally studied together. By examining Italian influences on the production of wax objects in France, the project also builds a link between Renaissance and Baroque wax ex-votos and nineteenth-century wax figure exhibitions, between verisimilitude as an agent of faith and verisimilitude as a technique of spectacle. Engaging with a wide range of fields including history of science and media studies, it further offers an opportunity to think more broadly about the viability of a medium as a conduit of information, whether in the rise of photography in the nineteenth century or in today's debates about post-truth politics.

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