Wax, whether found naturally in the form of beeswax or as a petroleum-based by-product, is a wondrous but problematic material. It was used anciently by the Greeks and Romans as a painting medium (called “encaustic”, a technique still used by such artists as Jasper Johns), valued for its quick working properties, translucence, ability to stick to most surfaces, inert reaction to pigments, and stability, it also is (obviously) susceptible to heat, can be quite brittle and collects dirt easily.
Those characteristics have proved both a help and hindrance in the longevity and eventually restoration of a work by the Impressionist sculptor Medardo Rosso. Made of plaster covered in beeswax, the portrait head, entitled Sick Boy, was badly cracked, and worse, had been poorly restored in the past. The fragments of wax had been reattached without first removing dirt along the joins, a whitish wax that didn’t match the original yellow beeswax had been used and the fragments had not been well aligned. Compounding the problem was the material itself; damage to objects in wax is very difficult to disguise since the material is translucent and inconsistencies such as air spaces can be seen that are well below the surface. The treatment involved removing the old wax fills, cleaning the troughs between the fragments and reattaching the fragments with wax tinted with pigments to match the original aged beeswax. A heated micro-spatula applied the new pigmented wax, and working from the inside out, the depth of color was systematically decreased to approximate the optics of the original. Although not perfect – nor could it have been – the work now presents itself as a whole.