Lot 50
  • 50

A very rare French 18th-century painted wood female mannequin wearing a robe à la française in silk metallic wrapped thread, circa 1765

30,000 - 50,000 GBP
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  • wood, paint, silk brocade, metal-thread, mica or glass in eyes, hair wig,
  • height: approximately 175 cm; 5ft. 9in.; width (maximum): 88cm; 2ft. 10in.; depth of base: 56cm; 1ft. 10in.
wearing a blonde wig, pearl earrings, a paste brooch in the form of a ribbon and paste buckles on the sleeve, a black ribbon around her neck and wooden shoes painted in corresponding floral decoration to the silk brocade dress, mounted on an iron pole raised on a later simulated-tortoiseshell octagonal base


Silent Partners Artist & Mannequin From Function To Fetish, Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge 14 October 2014 to 25 January 2015; Mannequin D'artiste, Mannequin Fetiche, Muséé Bourdelle, Paris 1st April-12th July; illustrated in catalogues of both exhibitions fig. 42.


Pierre Arizzoli-Clémentel et Pascale Gorguet Ballesteros, editors, Fastes de Cour et Cérémonies Royales.  Le Costume de Cour en Europe 1650-1800, exhibition catalogue, Château de Versailles, 31 March -28 June 2009
Madeleine Delpierre, Se Vêtir au XVIIIe Siècle, Paris, 1996
Carolyn Sargentson, Merchants and Luxury Markets: The Marchands Merciers of Eighteenth-Century Paris, Victoria and Albert Museum Studies in the History of Art and Design, in association with the J. Paul Getty Museum, London, 1996, Chp.5, Design and Innovation: Markets for patterned silks, pp.97-112; and Chp.6., Parisian Shops and the 'Magasins Anglais', pp.113-142.


A painted wood model, with silk dress and real hair wig. There is fine craquelure over the surface especially on the face. There is some later paint in areas, for example to the pink highlights of the face and a pink tone to the decoute. There is a visible crack in the centre of the wooden upper part of the body (décolletage). There are scattered scratches and craquelure to the surface with pigment losses on the left hand. There are areas of pigment loss, revealing the wood beneath at the back of the head on the left side of the neck and in a small area under the chin. There are chips on the faux marbre painted base. The painted legs and shoes are attached to a wooden block support, which has evidence of old worm, no longer active. The natural hair wig, slightly loose in areas, but stable and is easily removed, revealing a bald, unpainted head. The centre of the eyes is a reflective surface (glass or painted mica), and one has slight damage. The pearl earrings showing in the photograph are lacking, and have been replaced with alternative modern earrings. The silk brocade is a little faded overall. The robe has been reconstructed and altered both in the 19th century and later. The bodice on the left side, is a little low on the mannequin and shows more of the under wooden support and not just the painted top section of the body. The robe is comprised of vertically joined sections, and on the left side of the mannequin and dress one of the joins has opened up, and the original saffron yellow silk lining is visible. The robe now has a modern cream coloured lining, natural coloured calico petticoat, robings and sleeve trimmings, and apricot panel at the front. The metallic ribbon lace edging is of the period and restored. The original painted decoration on the shoes suggests that the dress is original as these match in colour, although the fabric has faded with time, as to be expected.
"In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective, qualified opinion. Prospective buyers should also refer to any Important Notices regarding this sale, which are printed in the Sale Catalogue.

Catalogue Note

This exceptional object appears to be the only recorded surviving life-size 18thcentury French mannequin de mode. A remarkably similar figure appears in an engraving entitled La Couture ou Belle Promesse est de peu d’effet published 1784 in Les Belles Marchandes, Almanach historique, proverbial et chantant, reproduced in Delpierre, fig. 51 p.164. The life-size mannequin is being used to display a dress to an elegant client in a fashionable boutique. The figure is depicted similarly clad in wooden shoes and raised on a plinth, and interestingly is shown without her wig, which proposes consideration that clients may have supplied their own wigs during fittings.

The 18th century dress is complemented by the shoes which are painted not only with identical floral sprays but also on a darker pink ground that would have corresponded to the original hue of the dress, which has faded more with time. The figure revolves on a central pole in order to display the dress from all angles. The dress is a typical robe à la française, a model derived from traditional Louis XIV court dress of three parts (the grand corps or main dress, the jupe or skirt supported by hoops and the bas de robe or train) that evolved into a simpler dress without a train for everyday wear and had conquered European fashion by the second half of the 18th century, see Gorguet Ballesteros, ‘Caractériser le Costume de Cour. Propositions’, p.58-59).

The history of mannequins in the 18th century remains a largely unexplored subject; they are a natural evolution from smaller fashion dolls or poupées de la mode known to have been in use for displaying new styles since the late 14th century, see Barbara Spadaccini-Day ‘La Poupée, Premier Mannequin de Mode’, in Fastes de Cour, p.226-29.

At the court of Louis XIV dressing dolls were in vogue among Madame de Scudéry and the Précieuses, and the use of such dolls for diffusing new fashions had apparently grown so much in importance that during the trade embargo between France and England during the War of Spanish Succession of the early 1700's an exception was made for poupées. A contemporary observer wrote, ‘les ministres des deux cours de Versailles et de St James’s accordaient en faveur de ces dames un passeport inviolable à la grande poupée’, which was described as a ‘figure d’albâtre de trois à quatre pieds, vêtue, coiffée suivante les modes les plus récentes pour servir de modèle aux dames du pays’. At three to four feet (90 – 120 cm), these dolls were already significantly larger than a toy and were beginning to approach actual average heights of the period.

When mannequins finally metamorphosed into actual life size is unclear, but Spaddacini-Day speculates it was in the latter half of the eighteenth century with the rise of the marchand-merciers and the luxury retail trade in Paris, epitomised in boutiques like that of Rose Bertin, the celebrated couturière of Marie-Antoinette. By the 1780's a foreign visitor was able to marvel that: 

'La fameuse poupée…enfin le prototype inspirateur passe de Paris à Londres tous le mois et va de là répandre des grâces dans toute l’Europe. Il va du Nord au Midi: il pénètre à Constantinople et à Pétersbourg, et le pli qu’a donné une main française se répète chez toutes les nations, humbles observatrices du goût de la Rue St Honoré' The famous doll… the inspirational prototype travels from Paris to London and thence imparts grace throughout Europe. It goes from North to South reaching as far as Constantinople and Petersburg, and pleats invented by French hands are copied by every nation in humble tribute to the taste of the Faubourg Saint-Honoré.’ Sébastien Mercier, Tableau de Paris, 1782-3 p.227.