I wasn’t really sure whether it was appropriate to discuss this set of German wax relief sculptures here, as they’re clearly not prints, do not appear to have been produced with any overtly satirical intention, and therefore could easily be considered to fall outside of the remit of this blog. However, I decided to throw caution to the wind given that the theme of the ‘four ages’ of man (or in this case woman) appeared extensively in Western European prints during the eighteenth-century, and because their extreme rarity makes them inherently interesting to those of us with the collecting bug.

The set was produced by the German sculptor Bernhard Caspar Wachsbossierer Hardy (1726 – 1819) for the art collector and antiquarian Ferdinand Franz Wallraf (1748 – 1824) around 1800. Hardy was a practicing priest in the city of Cologne but pursued a long-standing and presumably very lucrative trade as a renowned wax modeler and portraitist. His style appears to have been very much influenced by that of the French artist and engraver Philip Mercier (1689 – 1760), whose work was characterised by idealised portraits of the poor and the petite bourgeoisie, and was often grouped into series named after ages, seasons, elements, senses or times of day, to deliberately boost the sales of engraved copies of the original paintings. It also has parallels with the work of other contemporary artists such as Francis Wheatley, George Morland and Daniel Chodowiecki.

Hardy’s four sculptures present a neat summary of the conventional conservative view of the place of women in late eighteenth-century society. The first box contains the image of a young girl who is dipping a biscuit into her coffee to feed a pet dog, the scene conveys both the child’s innate innocence and love for her pet, as well as the nurturing instincts which all females were expected to posses. In the second box, the child has grown into a beautiful young woman who looks up at us from the mirror in which she has been fastidiously grooming herself in preparation for a suitable husband. The third, is a classic vision of motherhood which borrows heavily from the Marian iconography which Hardy would have been intimately familiar with. Old age comes next, with the elderly woman holds a book possibly symbolising her wisdom and ability to impart moral and domestic knowledge to her young granddaughters, thus closing the set in a continuous circle of female virtue.

While individual ‘life boxes’ such as this do occasionally appear on the market or in museum collections, the appearance of a complete set in such excellent condition is extremely rare. The set shown here was recently valued by one Berlin auction house at somewhere between £14,000 and £16,000, although at the time of writing it appears as though they remain unsold.