The articulated human figure made of wax or wood was a common tool in artistic practice in Europe from the 16th century. Numerous painters, including Michelangelo, Nicolas Poussin, Thomas Gainsborough, John Everett Millais and Gustave Courbet to name but a few, used them routinely in their working practice, as a way of studying clothing and the fall of light and shade. The lay figure’s indefatigable limbs offered a reliable substitute for the living model: generally cheaper, it was also able to sustain a pose for much longer.
Gainsborough owned two lay figures, or artists’ mannequins. One is recorded as being ‘ingeniously constructed’ with brass joints that allowed a significant degree of movement; evidently treasured by the artist during his lifetime, it was sold for £3 at a sale following the death of his wife. The other, which he appears to have been using towards the end of his life, was a life-sized figure stuffed with straw.
To an extent, Gainsborough’s use of lay figures mirrored his practice of creating model landscapes in his studio, substituting pieces of coal for rocks and broccoli for vegetation. His imagination effortlessly fused the real and the artificial, the sensual and the virtual, to create a unique pictorial world.
Keeper, Paintings, Drawings and Prints
Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
Further reading: Jane Munro ed., Silent Partners. Artists and Mannequin from Function to Fetish, (London and New Haven: Yale University Press), 2014
To see Nicolas Poussin’s use of wax figures see Poussin’s Virtual Reality display in the Courtauld Gallery
Title: Extreme Unction
Object number: PD.11-2012
Acquisition: Accepted by H.M. Government in Lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2012, and acquired with additional contributions after a public appeal
Maker: Nicolas Poussin
Technique: Oil on canvas
Department: Paintings, Drawings and Prints
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