John Ferguson Weir, His Favorite Model, approx. 1880-1889
Until the end of the 19th century, when photographs of live models became their aid of choice, lay figures (jointed mannequins, often miniature) were a popular tool for artists painting the human form. As Daniel Burleigh Parkhurst wrote in The Painter in Oil (1903):
No good figure-work has ever been done which was not founded on a knowledge of the nude. Whether the figure is draped or not, the nude is the basis of form. The best painters have always made their studies of pose and action in the nude, and then drawn the draperies over that. This insures the truth of action and structure true, which is almost sure to be lost when the drawing of the form is made through drapery or clothing. The underlying structure is as essential here as in portrait. It is the more imperative that the body be felt within the clothes from the fact that it cannot be seen. There must be no ambiguity, no doubt as to the anatomy underneath; for without this there can be no sense of actuality…
The use of a lay figure will help you somewhat if you can get one which is true in proportion. It will not help you much in the finer modeling, but it will at least insure your structural lines being in the right place, and that is as much as you can hope for without the special study of the nude. A lay figure is expensive, costing about three hundred dollars in this country. You will hardly be apt to aspire to a full-sized one, as only professional painters can afford to pay so much for accessories. But small wooden ones are within the means of most people, and will be found useful for the purpose I have mentioned, and one should be obtained.