Artist Camilla Huey has a close to the skin interpretation of founding father Aaron Burr. While we know about his schemes to gain and keep political power, Huey tempts us to think about Burr’s gender politics. Was the former Vice-President who shot Alexander Hamilton in a duel, a full-fledged Lothario, or might there be another story?
The film “The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Binding and Corsetry” premiering at Symphony Space at 95th St. and Broadway in Manhattan on Saturday, November 14 at noon offers a much more complicated and nuanced view of the man and his significant female others. As Thomas Paine wrote in that revolutionary era “If we take a survey of the countries and the ages… we will find the women adored and oppressed. Man who has never neglected an opportunity of exerting his power, in paying homage to their beauty has always availed himself of their weakness… at once their tyrant and their slave.”
Based on interpretations of letters, diaries, period books and a range of obscure primary sources, Huey thinks that Burr was actually a proto-feminist. Her research, done with the help of Kurt Thometz a rare book dealer at Jumel Terrace Books, is stunning. No other founding father was such a passionate adherent of Mary Wollstonecraft, whose Vindication of the Rights of Women suggested a founding mothers’ creed. Burr surrounded himself with intelligent, articulate and well-informed women. His mother, a descendant of the famous Edwards line of ministers, was the well-educated wife of the president of Princeton University. His wife Theodosia Prevost Burr was a literate and witty conversationalist. His daughter Theodosia Burr Alston spoke several languages, could ride, fence and shoot, and hosted his soirees when he was in government. His friend and possible lover Leonora Sansay, married to a wealthy Saint Domingue plantation owner, wrote a unique epistolary novel The Secret History or The Horrors of St. Domingo” based on letters to Burr about the slave uprisings of the Haitian Revolution. Burr’s protoge and friend Jane McManus Cazneau was the first female journalist in the wild territories of the West, when Texas was a Republic.
These unusual qualities of women in the early Republic are represented in a most fascinating manner with the artist’s portrait corsets. The Jane McManus corset wraps a burly leather corset fastened with a studded belt around the journalist’s writings. Wife Theodosia Prevost Burr, a hostess who helped Burr improve his French and sharpen his command of the intellectual riches of the French Enlightenment, is represented by a corset of see through materials with letters embedded in the delicate fabric. The daughter Theodosia Burr Alston was raised to ““to convince the world [of] that [which] neither sex appear to believe – that women have souls…” wrote her father. Her portrait in fine cotton and satin evokes her feminity and strength. A mourning corset for Burr’s mother Esther Edwards Burr relies on elegaic deep purple and black.
Eliza Jumel, the canny ambitious widow of Stephen Jumel presided over a mansion in Hamilton Heights where Washington once had his headquarters. Burr contracted a contentious marriage with her late in life. It seems Madam Jumel needed more social status, and Burr as always needed money. Jumel’s corset portrait abounds with rich velvet. black lace, silk satin and a cascade of books from her busy commercial life accumulating a fortune through real estate.
Accompanying Leonora Sansay’s corset is a painstakingly intricate take on the letters of her novel “The Secret History” written in blood, fixed with sugar, and framed in gold to point to all the elements of the sugar colony’s savage slave regime. Leaves of the Haitian coffee bean and bits of woven baskets for the coffee harvest pick through more delicate shreds of lace and cotton in the corresponding corset.
Camilla Huey is a couturier and designer whose interest in history ranges from the primary sources used to flesh out these women to the period fabrics, lace, and trimmings deployed as markers of personality and achievement. Instead of seeing the corset as a symbol of women’s confinement, this series of artistic assemblages asks us to pay attention to what lies beneath.
In this interpretation, the corset is the secret armature of power, stiffening women’s resolve to combat their reductive treatment as supplement, subordinate and femme couverte.
Photos, from above: Elia Jumel, wealthy widow and real estate investor, wife of Aaron Burr. (photo by Bill Orcutt); Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of Aaron Burr (photo by Seth Tillett); Jane McManus (Seth Tillett photo); and Leonora Sansay, friend of Aaron Burr and chronicler of Haitian Revolution (Seth Tillett).