Extraordinarily Rare Life-Sized Chinese Female Lay Figure/Mannequin
Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), first half 19th century, hand-carved Asian hardwood, with fully articulated wheel and ball joints, the face with incised and painted facial features and horse hair inset, plugged and arranged as a single braid, the feet modeled as bound with original muslin and gauze bindings; together with a later painted wood presentation chair.
figure h. 59", shoulder w. 14-1/2", hip w. 12"; chair h. 33-3/4", w. 11-3/4", d. 11"
Provenance: Antique shop, New Orleans, Louisiana, ca. 1950; Richard Lane Vaughn (1914-1994) and his wife Zane Houston (1922-2008), Point Loma, California, thence by descent; Private collection, San Diego, California.
Literature: "Judge Credits Navy for Oriental Taste". Evening Tribune. 12 Sept. 1980. A18.
Notes: Lay figures/mannequins are truly the "silent partners" in the history of Eastern and Western cultures. In Ancient China, they were fertility votives, temple and funerary guards. They were venerated in the form of a terracotta army of more than 8,000 soldiers buried with the first Emperor of China (259 BCE - 10 September 210 BCE) in Xi'an, and they have influenced various forms of Chinese opera for over 800 years. In the Orient, they were used extensively in rituals and the performing arts; in the Occident they were more commonly facilitated in the plastic arts. It is purported that they were employed as anatomical aids by Ancient Greek sculptors, though no true evidence of them predates the Italian Renaissance, during which they were used by some of the most talented artists of the time. Michelangelo used them in his commission of the Sistine Chapel to better register light, shadow and perspective, while lying on his back on a ceiling scaffold, and Fra Bartolomeo, according to Giorgio Vasari, was the first artist to devise a fully articulated life-size lay figure in wood. As Jane Munro states in her book Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish, lay figures were never "artistic 'props' designed to assist artists of limited conceptual and technical abilities".
In the last few hundred years, smaller lay figures/maquettes, made of secondary woods, were used to rehearse a movement or pose, for both artistic and medical purposes, including acupuncture, whereas larger than life-size figures were typically employed for modeling drapery. The juxtaposition between the more roughly carved torsos and the scale and detail with which the faces, heads, hands, feet and the joints that bind them are rendered strongly suggest that these figures were meant to be displayed in clothes for either a prominent 19th-century merchant shop, or more likely a tea room. A fine husband and wife pair of Chinese lay figures with the same painted extremities, face, hair and articulated joint structure were sold in the Christie's, New York Chinese Export sale for $10,000 on January 25, 2011 as lot 166. Though far smaller, at only 24 inches, they, too, were not likely meant to be displayed naked, and may have also been used in tea shop displays. Tea shop mannequins were quite common during the Qing period, and were modeled in three sizes with elaborately bound/wrapped feet, painted hands and faces with fine coiffures made of animal hair. Tea shop mannequins also came with both closed torsos, as is the case with these two lots, and open armature ones, designed for the display of tea boxes. Despite their ubiquity, Chinese lay figures and mannequins are extraordinarily rare at auction as these icons and votives were frowned upon by the new regime and were destroyed by the Chinese People's Republic during the second half of the 20th century.
As the Chinese Cultural Revolution cast aside past superstitions, the Vaughns began amassing their sizable collection of Chinese votives and idols in wood and bronze, including these lay figures. In a fine article covered in the San Diego Evening Tribune, Judge Richard Lane's obsession with Asian art and artifacts was influenced by his service in the Navy during World War II. Between the late 1940s and 1970s, the Vaughns actively collected Asian works, purchasing them from auctions, antiquarians and fine galleries, including in New Orleans in 1950. The Vaughns were prominent members of the San Diego community. Zane Houston was involved in the arts and community affairs, and her husband served as a District Attorney, Circuit Court Judge and a Juvenile Court Judge, retiring from the Bench in 1978.
References: Munro, Jane. Silent Partners: Artist and Mannequin from Function to Fetish. New Haven: Yale U.P., 2015, pp. 4-7, 49-52.