Lay Figures

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“In his youth… Delacroix had many sessions with female models devoted to activities other than posing.” —Marie Lathers, Bodies of Art: French Literary Realism and the Artist’s Model

I hadn’t thought about those little men in years, the wooden models cased in glass at the art supply store, though I’d linger by them

after school, studying their blank faces and jointed limbs, wondering what they were for and who would buy them. Surprising then to find

their forms again in Delacroix’s sketches, to recognize in a master’s hand the long Os of their faces and torsos. In one series,

two mannequins instead of men lean in to the mouth of a cave in the briefest of outlines, while robed Medea is a maze of angles

and her dagger seems to tremble. Why wouldn’t the great artist rough out ideas by posing figures who’d stay where they were put? Of course,

he might have drawn real men—what do I know of artists’ habits? But at a recent auction a mannequin d’atelier sold from his studio,

and I was delighted to think that I was right about the way he worked. He sketched live models, too, and bedded many, but always finished

from the imagination, “unconstrained” by the living features of man or girl. The figure in the auction catalog was spindlier

than the ones I once admired, its knobby elbows and fingers more expressive, somehow, though its face just as empty—the way the artist must

have thought of the real girls too, mute and posable, interchangeable even, another set of tools.