Photograph by Eugègen Feyen of Gustave Courbet’s studio in Ornans, showing a lay figure, June 1864. (image courtesy of Institut Gustave Courbet, Ornans)
Gustave Courbet claimed to paint only “real and existing things,” yet an 1864 photograph of his studio suggests otherwise. In it, a life-sized female effigy sits propped against the wall. Not even Courbet — who vibrantly captured the flushed cheeks of high-society Frenchwomen — could do without the reliable artifice that is the artist’s mannequin, now the subject of an intriguing exhibition opening October 14 at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum.
Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish tracks the history of the artist’s mannequin from the 16th century, when it was an essential but unseen part of the artist’s toolkit, through the 20th century, when modernists elevated it as subject matter. The show includes every imaginable specimen, from carved 16th-century figurines and effigies to life-size mannequins and costly “stuffed Parisian” lay figures. Far from being a dry historical survey, curator Jane Munro promises an exploration of “the psychological presence of a figure that was realistic, yet unreal — lifelike, yet lifeless.”
In “The Farmer in the Artist’s Studio,” painted in 1839, Heinrich von Rustige portrayed a costumed artist’s mannequin taking a local intruder by surprise. (Image courtesy of Stiftung Sammlung Volmer, Wuppertal)
Mannequin makers were always searching for the latest technology to give them an edge over their competitors. In 1849, five years after inventor Charles Goodyear developed vulcanized rubber, Jean Désiré Leblond patented this life-size mannequin using the material. (Image courtesy of Archives, Institut National de la Propriété Industrielle, Paris)
This 1888 oil painting of a studio interior by German realist Wilhelm Trübner features a mannequin in its left back corner. (Image courtesy of Museen der Stadt Nürnberg, Gemälde- und Skulpturensammlung Germanisches Nationalmuseum, Nürnberg. Photograph by Jürgen Musolf)
Sadly, though by no means surprisingly, there is precedence for this female erasure. Women have been and continue to be the executors of the invisible, unpaid, unaccredited labor that makes much of the world run smoothly.
Laura C. Mallonee is a Brooklyn-based writer. She holds an M.A. in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU and a B.F.A. in painting from Missouri State University. She enjoys exploring new cities and...
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