Photograph by Eugègen Feyen of  Gustave Courbet’s studio in Ornans, showing a  lay figure, June 1864. (Image courtesy of Institut Gustave  Courbet, Ornans)

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 late 18th century and early 19th century, Paul Huot’s mannequins were the most sought-after among artists from Paris to St. Petersburg. The genre painter August von der Embde paid 1000 francs — an enormous sum — to have one sent to Kassel, Germany, while the British painter William Etty once waited a full year to obtain one. These “mannequin perfectionné,” as they were known, had an internal skeleton with moveable joints, horsehair stuffing, and an external cotton stockinette covering that mimicked human skin. (Image courtesy of Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel, Sammlung Angewandte Kunst © bpk – Bildagentur für Kunst, Kultur und Geschichte / Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel)

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)

Between the winter of 1865 and the summer of 1866, the Pre-Raphaelite British painter John Everette Millais rented this mannequin from leading art supply store Charles Roberson & Co. The Parisian figure — known simply as Child no. 98 — had a horse-hair stuffed torso and a papier mache head. It was too pricy to buy, but it proved an apt model for two portraits (“Sleeping” and “Waking”) the artist made of his own daughters. He worked from such dolls up until his death in 1895. (Image courtesy of Roberson Archive, Hamilton Kerr Institute © Hamilton Kerr Institute, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Photograph by Chris Titmus)

This bust was made by Pierre Imans between 1910 and 1920. A self-described “sculptor and ceroplastician,” the Dutch mannequin maker owned one of the two leading French mannequin companies in the early 20th century. With their enamel eyes and human hair, his wax figures were incredibly realistic — so much so that Imans frowned on the word ‘mannequin’, preferring his creations to be described as “Les Cires de Pierre Imans” (“The Waxes of Pierre Imans”). (Image courtesy of the Fashion Museum, Bath
© Fashion Museum, Bath and North East Somerset Council )

Edgar Degas’s “Portrait of Henri Michel-Lévy” (1878) shows a bonneted mannequin slumped at the French artist’s feet. (Image courtesy of Museu Calouste Gulbenkian, Lisbon © Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation, Lisbon M.C.G. Photograph by Catarina Gomes Ferreira)

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)

Oskar Kokoschka fell in love with Alma Mahler in 1912, and after she dumped him, the artist consoled himself by commissioning a life-size mannequin in her image from the doll-maker Hermine Moos. He lived with it for a while, dressing it, featuring it in his paintings (such as this one from 1922, titled “Self-portrait at the Easel”) — and, as the curator writes, “possibly having a close physical relationship with it.” When his heartbreak subsided, he beheaded it at a party and broke a red wine bottle over its torso. (Image courtesy of Leopold Collection II, Vienna © Fondation Oskar Kokoschka / DACS 2014)

“Reposing” (c. 1929) is one in a painting series the British artist Alan Beeton devoted to his androgynous, 19th-century Parisian mannequin — one he got to know well doing commercial portrait work. While researching the exhibition, curator Jane Munro tracked down Beeton’s subject. “My first sight of it was in the workshop of one of the artist’s descendants, seated on a battered wickerwork chair, dressed comfortably in baggy trousers and a moth-eaten polo neck jumper; on its head was an unbecoming ladies’ wig,” she recalled in a press statement. “For all that, it exuded a warm, benign expression and seemed as relaxed and nonchalant as it appears in many of Beeton’s paintings.” (Image courtesy of Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge © The Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge)

A photograph by Denise Bellon, taken at the International Exhibition of Surrealism, shows Salvador with the lay figure he used as the chauffeur in “Le Taxi Pluvieux” (1938). (Image courtesy of Fonds Photographique Denise Bellon, Paris © Les Films de l’Équinoxe Fonds Photographique Denise Bellon © Salvador Dalí, Fundació Gala Salvador Dalí, DACS, 2014)

Giorgio de Chirico’s “Hector and Andromache,” 1917, Private Collection © DACS 2014)

“Träumende” (“The Dreamers”) by Umbo, 1928–9 (Image courtesy of Kicken Gallery, Berlin
© Phyllis Umbehr / Galerie Kicken Berlin / DACS 2014)

Catalan Spanish muralist José María Sert used mannequins for a photographic study for “The Triumphs of Humanity” (1937). (Image courtesy of Galerie Michèle Chomette, Paris © José Maria Sert)

Silent Partners: Artist & Mannequin from Function to Fetish opens October 14 at the Fitzwilliam Museum (Trumpington St, Cambridge, UK).

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Laura C. Mallonee

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...