Bringing Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte To Life

By Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch

Strike a Pose
Alexandra poses as Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte

You just never know what you might have to do as a curator! In the past month, I had to “strike a pose” twice, all in the name of my curatorial duties for our new exhibition, Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and the Quest for an Imperial Legacy, opening in June, 2013.

For this exhibit, StudioEis in Brooklyn, New York is creating two life-like mannequins. The first mannequin is of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte as she would have stood in an elegant salon in Paris.

The second is of her mother, Dorcas Spear, in her elegant embroidered silk gown, the one she may have worn for her wedding to William Patterson. This was the first step of many in customized mannequin production.

Next StudioEis needed muslins (a sort of mock-up) of all original garments to help them recreate the correct body shape for the mannequins.

Using the original garments could damage them, so we enlisted the help of Colleen Callahan of Costume and Textile Specialists, Inc. She created a muslin reproduction of the dress worn by Elizabeth and a shift that would have been worn underneath the original. The dress Colleen copied is simple, yet incredibly elegant with a long train and exquisite openwork and embroidery on the arms.

Original gown worn by Dorcas Spear Patterson (MDHS XX.5.152) on a temporary form with Colleen Callahan who is determining the original shape of the gown when it was worn.

In the process of making the reproduction of Elizabeth’s original gown, we learned some interesting details about her. Most published sources described her as very small. In our minds, this meant she was as short, somewhere around 4’11”. In fact, her dress indicates that she was 5’3” or 5’4”, not short at all for the period. The proportions of the dress attest to her very small frame. With a 28” rib cage and arms the size of a modern adolescent girl, Betsy was indeed petite in size though not in stature. Perhaps the most striking measurement revealed by the original gown was her overall bust size, a notable 35”. Voluptuous is definitely an apt descriptor for Betsy.

Colleen is about to begin the muslin reproduction of Dorcas Spear’s dress and has already examined the original to determine how it may have looked when she wore it. Curiously, Betsy’s mother seems to have had a similar figure, although she was an inch or so shorter than her daughter. Dorcas’s gown was a stunning ivory patterned silk with polychrome floral and foliate embroidery. The original loops sewn into the interior of the skirt document that the gown could have been drawn up in the back and worn “polonaise-style.”

The last step was choosing an image for the faces that seemed to best represent written descriptions. Elizabeth and her likeness are based on the Gilbert Stuart triple portrait, and Dorcas Spear is modeled after a portrait by Robert Edge Pine.

Gilbert Stuart
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Gilbert Stuart, 1804, Private Collection

Here is a look at the earliest version of the Elizabeth mannequin. The final version will not be revealed until the exhibition opens, but here is a sneak peek.

Stay tuned for the next installment on these show-stopping mannequins!

*StudioEis in Brooklyn is an extraordinary company composed of a team of artists who create remarkably life-like mannequins and bronzes. Debra and Elliot Schwarz are the brother and sister team behind the business. Their workshop is in DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Overpass), a newly chic neighborhood of converted warehouses and industrial buildings with an amazing view of the Brooklyn Bridge. Debra, Elliot and their team are creating two mannequins for the exhibition.

*Colleen Callahan is a costume and textile historian with experience in conservation and as a theatrical costumer. In 2003, the Valentine Richmond History Center* designated Colleen as curator emeritus of costumes and textiles.

While at the Valentine, Colleen managed the museum’s 40,000-piece internationally known collection and curated over
twenty art and social history-themed exhibitions. Colleen consults with large and small institutions nationwide on exhibition, collection management and documentation, conservation, and reproduction clothing projects. She is a sought after lecturer and contributor to popular and scholarly publications. Colleen is active in professional
organizations including the Virginia Association of Museums and the Costume Society of America, for which she served a term as president.

Colleen received her BA in Theatre from Smith College and her MA in Arts Administration: Costume Studies from New York University under a joint program with the Costume Institute of Metropolitan Museum of Art.

One Response to “Bringing Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte To Life”

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