Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History



  • Two dresses, ca. 1810
    French
    White cotton
    Purchase, Gifts in memory of Elizabeth N. Lawrence, 1983 (1983.6.1)
    Rogers Fund, 1907 (07.146.5)

    The combination of white mull, a thin and almost sheer cotton, with a cylindrical silhouette and a high Empire waistline comprises a potent evocation of classical dress. Although there are many images depicting the belting of chitons and peploi above the natural waistline, the raised waist was rarely positioned directly under the bust. This Neoclassical mannerism abetted the illusion of the body as a dramatically linear and columnar form. Fashionable Directoire and Empire beauties, however, did not embrace the architectonic solidity of ancient caryatids. Instead, their classicism was aligned with an arcadian "naturalism" that rationalized the disclosure of the supple female form. Observers of the period frequently deplored the absence of modesty conveyed by a style that was predicated on the prominence and exposure of the breasts and on the barely veiled body. The women of ancient Greece, generally swathed in modesty, would have been startled by this promiscuous public display.

    On December 24, 1803, Jérôme Bonaparte (1784–1860), brother of Napoleon, wed Elizabeth Patterson (1785–1879) of Baltimore. The beautiful and fashionable young American was married in a dress of muslin and lace that, according to a contemporary, "would fit easily into a gentleman's pocket." This description evokes the sheer, narrow dresses that caused a sensation at the beginning of the nineteenth century, more because of their contrast with the elaborate hooped costumes of previous decades than for any real immodesty.

    Although originally thought to have been Patterson's wedding dress, the formal gown illustrated here probably dates from 1804, when this type of vertical white embroidery became fashionable. The very sheer cotton mull from which the dress is made was probably imported from India already embroidered with heavy white cotton thread in transparent mull. Only a daring few had briefly abandoned these items of clothing, in imitation of "Grecian" drapery–the first of many fanciful nineteenth-century allusions to details of costume in earlier historic periods.

    As for the Patterson-Bonaparte union: Napoleon had the marriage annulled in 1805 and made Jérôme the king of Westphalia in 1807. That year, Jérôme married the princess of Württemberg. Elizabeth, banned from France by the emperor, remained in Baltimore with her son, Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte (1805–1870).

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  • Two dresses, ca. 1810
    French
    White cotton
    Purchase, Gifts in memory of Elizabeth N. Lawrence, 1983 (1983.6.1)
    Rogers Fund, 1907 (07.146.5)

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