Artists' models, the articulated figures found among the stocks of art supply merchants, date back several centuries. Ranging in size from under 7 inches to larger than life-size, the earliest and finest examples are of South German origin from the early 16th century. Engineered with an ingenious system of gut bands, these are posable in multiple ways, with movable trunk, limbs, feet and hands, even the individual joints of the fingers. Minute and meticulous attention was paid to every articulation.
The exquisite, earliest boxwood examples of male and female figures were not suitable for rigorous use in artist studios and were likely made for display in Kunstkammer collections, reflecting the interest in the human body during the Renaissance. They also give us a historical milestone in the evolution of small scale carved figures becoming artistic works in their own right, as referenced in the collections of Innsbruck Museum, Austria and Berlin's Bode Museum.
Mannequins, also known a lay figures, became more androgynous from the 18th into the 19th century, by which time they were constructed in pine, linden or walnut with wooden pegs and separate male and female figures were seldom made. A superlative 18th century example is the model used by the sculptor Louis-Francois Roubiliac. Now in the collection of the Museum of London, it has the original box with clothing, male and female, along with hat and wig.
Reaching their peak of manufacture and popularity in France circa 1850, ownership was coveted. "Mannequin Articule" would be listed in the inventory of important artists' possessions at that time.
Keenly sought after by collectors, the figures' desirability and rarity is defined by size, quality, condition, antiquity and particularly, the deftness of the carving.