A unique life size articulated artist's mannequin

Wednesday, April 26th 2023

by a Parisian Workshop, c. 1840

Parisian, ca. 1840.

A rare life size articulated mannequin

Horsehair stuffed and fabric covered limbs and a metallic key-adjustable jointed under-structure. Papier-mâché head with blond hair and eyebrows and brown sulfide eyes. On a circular height adjustable wooden stand.

160 cm high (about 5’3”).
Height with stand: 171 cm (about 5’7”).
(good overall condition; slight wear and tear to the fabric; damage to two fingers; minor blemishes and smeared paint on the face)


From the Renaissance to the 20th century, these "giant articulated dolls" were as much the tools as the subjects of the greatest artists. A real workshop secret, written information about them is scarce and physical examples very rare. They seem to have been used since the Middle-Ages. In the 16th century, Florentine master Vasari recommended that artists "have a life-size articulated wooden mannequin made, which could be posed at will until it looked perfectly natural..." It was only at the end of the 18th century that its use would spread throughout the finest European studios, Paris becoming the number one production center of artist’s mannequins at the beginning of the 19th century.

Our "enhanced" specimen is characteristic of the so-called realistic Parisian productions. With its internal skeleton and detailed looks, displayed by the carefully made head that can be disconnected to facilitate its clothing-up It meets two requirements:. Its skeleton - probably made of wood and metal -affords for a flexibility akin to that of the human body, while the "stuffing" is usually made of linen and horse hair. As they required up to one year of work by a single French craftsman, mannequins with such a high level of workmanship were very expensive.

Few "enhanced" mannequins are known. "The rare models to have come down to us in a good shape generally used to belong to famous artists; more often than not, they are mere relics that were lovingly kept by their owners and stored at the tops of dusty art school closets or stowed in artists’ studios or the attics of their relatives," recalled the curators of the "Mannequin d'atelier - Mannequin fétiche" exhibition organized by the Bourdelle Museum in 2015.

Of these other specimens, a mannequin dating back to the first half of the 19th century and measuring about 170 cm (5’7”) was acquired in 2015 the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Another one, child sized, belongs in the collections of the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, UK. The making of both mannequins as well as that of a privately held one made ca. 1790 is attributed to Parisian Paul Huot (active in Paris from the 1790s to the 1820s). The École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris also holds an 1800 specimen by François-Pierre Guillois fitted with a height adjustment system similar to ours. The only other mannequins to be known of are either found on pictures of artist studios, such as Courbet's, or depicted in artworks – see for instance Edgar Degas' ca. 1878 "L'homme et le pantin" painting held in the collections of the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon.

While the exquisiteness and sophistication of our mannequin would bring to mind the work of Paul Huot, its body and, above all, its intricate mechanical structure are reminiscent of the work of Parisian cardboard sculptor Louis Hallé (1803-1888) and his associate art dealer Léopold Chéradame (1803-after 1868). In 1837, both men filed a patent for a life-size cardboard artist's mannequin with "enhanced joints" to be used by painters (1BA6432). A drawing kept in the archives of the National Institute of Industrial Property (INPI) shows a mannequin looking very much like ours.

More accommodating and available than live models, studio mannequins became a tool of artistic emancipation as they allowed artists to go beyond the stereotypical nature of poses taken by professional models. Although Realist artists contested the use of such a ploy, it is interesting to note that Gustave Courbet possessed two of them. In an 1866 letter addressed to his father, he asked to be sent "both mannequins, the female and the male, in the square box that [was] in the attic" without the "fir tree stand" that came with them. On an 1864 picture by Eugène Feyen of Courbet’s Ornans workshop, a mannequin very similar to ours can be seen. Looking quite realistic, its face is finely crafted while the position of its body shows all its joints.

In the last years of the 19th and early 20th centuries, the mannequin gradually became a subject in its own right. Painters, photographers and writers were caught up in its disturbing game and mysterious presence. Sigmund Freud drew inspiration from that notion in his 1919 essay on the concept of "worrýing strangeness". For some, the vision of studio mannequins became increasingly obsessive. Such was the case with English painter Alan Beeton (1880-1942). A talented portraitist, he produced a series of paintings between 1929 and 1931 on which mannequins were staged behind closed studio doors: Composing (exhibited in Bourdelle's studio), Reposing I, Untitled (Reposing II), The Letter...

After having been used as a ploy for several centuries, mannequins became metaphysical objects that had to be shown. Such fetishism is reflected in André Breton’s Manifesto of Surrealism and in Oskar Kokoschka’s doll... Denise Beelon’s pictures of the mannequins exhibited at the Pavilion of Elegance during the 1937 International Exhibition of Arts and Techniques applied to Modern Life caused an uproar. The press was outraged by sculptor Robert Couturier’s "petrified ghosts" made “a la Chirico". Shortly thereafter, the Surrealists grabbed people’s attention by hijacking mannequins during the International Exhibition of Surrealism at the Galerie Beaux-Arts while Salvador Dali staged himself with mannequins to embody "the worrýing strangeness of modern beauty".

Valentin De Sa Morais
translated by Sabine Vincenot
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