The Loves of Aaron Burr:
Portraits in Corsetry & Binding
A Secret History
Secret History as envisioned by Camilla Huey is a screen of 32 letters, each
a single page on which is cross-written a complete chapter from Leonora Sansay’s history of the Haitian Revolution on onionskin paper with a border of blood and sugar. A captivating telling of Creole superficiality and decadence shown in high relief against the horrors of the Haitian enslavement and revolution. These letters were cross-written daily on the subway until the complete book was transcribed onto 32 pages/32 chapters, as a sculpture, suspended from the ceiling on silk threads.
An admirer of Madame de Stael, Sansay utilizes her epistolary novels as substitutes for the absence of salon culture. Sansay’s venture into publishing was not financially successful or greatly praised. She soon pursued yet another venture reflecting the influence of French culture, the creation of a silk flower manufactory. Through this largely female business, Sansay gains financial status and personal satisfaction, rendering her too busy in 1812 to travel from Philadelphia to meet the recently returned and impecunious Aaron Burr upon his return to New York from his four-year exile in Europe.
Burr’s position on the Haitian Revolution contrasts with that of slave owner Jefferson’s and Tory capitalist Hamilton’s allegiance to Bonaparte, which embraced the American apprehension of racial revolt in the American South. The Haitian Revolution is a lens through which to view American attitudes towards the French Revolution, black freedom and slavery.
Excerpts from Leonora Sansay’s Secret History, all spelling and punctuation as original.
Cape Francois, 1803
...Three months after this period we arrived and now have been a month
here, the town is rapidly rebuilding, but it is extremely difficult to find a lodging. The heat is intolerable and the season so unhealthy that the people die in incredible numbers. On the night of our arrival, Toussaint the general
in chief of the Negroes was seized at the Gonaives and embarked for
France. This event caused great rejoicing. A short time before he was taken, he had his treasure buried in the woods, and at the return of the Negroes
he employed on the expedition, they were shot without being suffered to
utter a word.
Clara has had the yellow fever. Her husband, who certainly loves her
very much, watched her with unceasing care, and I believe, preserved her life, to which however she attaches no value since it must be passed with him.
Nothing amuses her. She sighs continually for the friend of her youth and seems to exist only in the recollection of past happiness. He aversion to her husband is unqualified and unconquerable. He is vain, illiterate, and talkative. A silent fool may be borne, but from a loquacious one there is no relief. How painful must her intercourse with him be; how infinitely must that pain be augmented by the idea of being his forever? Her elegant mind, stored with literary acquirements, is lost to him. Her proud soul is afflicted at depending on one she abhors, and at beholding her form; you must know that form so vilely battered. Whilst on the continent she was less sensible of the horrors of her fate. The society of her friend gave a charm to her life, and having married in compliance with his advice, she thought she would eventually be happy. But their separation has rent the veil, which concealed her heart; she finds no sympathy in the bosom of her husband. She is alone and she is wretched.
General Le Clerc is small, his face is interesting, but he has an appearance of ill health. His wife, the sister of Buonaparte, lives in a house on the mountain till there can be one in town prepared for her reception. She is offended, and
I think justly, with the ladies of the Cape, who, from a mistaken pride, did not wait on her when she arrived, because having lost their clothes they could not dazzle her with their finery.
Having heard that there were some American ladies here she expressed
a desire to see them; Mr. V______proposed to present us; Clara who would not walk a mile to see a queen, declined. But I, who walk at all times, merely for the pleasure it affords me, went; and, considering the labour it costs to ascend the mountain, I have a claim on the gratitude of Madame for having undertaken it to show her an object which she probably expected to find in
a savage state.
She was in a room darkened by venetian blinds, lying on her sofa, from which she rose to receive me. When I was seated she reclined again on the sofa and amused General Boyer, who sat at her feet by letting her slipper fall continually, which he respectfully put on as often as it fell. She is small, fair, with blue eyes and flaxen hair. Her face is expressive of sweetness but without spirit. She has a voluptuous mouth, and is rendered interesting by an air of languor which spreads itself over her whole frame. She was dressed in a muslin morning gown, with a Madras handkerchief on her head. I gave
her one of the beautiful silver medals of Washington, engraved by Reich, with which she seemed much pleased. The conversation languished and I soon withdrew...
The pleasures of the table were carried to the last degree of refinement. Gaming knew no bounds, and libertinism, called love, was without restraint. The Creole is generous hospitable, magnificent, but vain, inconstant, and incapable of serious application; and in this abode of pleasure and luxurious ease vices have reigned at which humanity must shudder. The jealousy of
the women is terrible in its consequences. Our lady, who had a beautiful Negro girl continually about her person, thought she saw some symptoms
of tendresse in the eyes of her husband, and all the furies of jealousy seized her soul. SH
She ordered one of her slaves to cut off the head of the unfortunate victim, which was instantly done. At dinner her husband said he felt no disposition to eat, to which his wife, with the air of a demon, replied, perhaps I can give you something that will excite your appetite; it has at least had that affect before. She rose and drew from the closet the head of Coomba. The husband shocked beyond expression left the house and sailed immediately for France, in order never again to behold such a monster.
Many similar anecdotes have been related…after having excited my warmest sympathy, made me laugh heartily in the midst of my tears. She told me
that her husband was stabbed in her arms by a slave he had always treated as his brother; that she had seen her children killed, and her house burned, but had been herself been preserved by a faithful slave, … after incredible sufferings, and through innumerable dangers to the Cape. The same slave, she added, and the idea seemed to console her for every other loss, saved
all my madrass handkerchiefs.
The Creole ladies have an air of voluptuous languor, which renders
them extremely interesting. Their eyes, their teeth, and their hair
are remarkably beautiful, and they have acquired from the habit of commanding their slaves, an air of dignity, which adds to their charms. Almost too indolent to pronounce their words they speak a drawling accent that is very agreeable: but since they have been roused by the pressure of misfortune many of them have displayed talents and found resources in the energy of their own minds which it would have been supposed impossible for them to possess.
They have a natural taste for music; dance with a lightness, a grace,
an elegance peculiar to themselves, and those who, having been educated in France, unite the French vivacity to Creole sweetness,
are the most irresistible creatures that the imagination can conceive
In the ordinary intercourse of life they are delightful; but if wanted
a friend on any extraordinary occasion I would not venture to rely on
…that I might see the so much vaunted habitations where I should repose beneath the shade of orange groves; walk on carpets of rose leaves and frangipone; be fanned to sleep by silent slaves, or have
my feet tickled into extacy by the soft hand of a female attendant.
Such were the pleasures of the Creole ladies whose time was divided between the bath, the table, the toilette and the lover.
What a delightful existence! Thus to pass away life in the arms of voluptuous indolence; to wander over flowery fields of unfading verdure, Or through forests of majestic palm-trees, sit by a fountain bursting from a savage rock frequented only by the cooing dove, and indulge in these enchanting solitudes all the reveries of an exalted imagination.
The sofas and curtains were of blue satin with silver fringe. A door which stood open, led into the bedchamber. The canopy of the bed was in the form of a shell, from which little cupids descending held back with one hand, curtains of white satin trimmed with gold, and pointed with the other to a large mirror which formed the tester. On a table, in the form of an alter, which stood near the bed, was an alabaster figure representing silence, with a finger on its lips, and bearing in its hands a waxen taper.
The French appear to understand less than any other people the delights arising from a union of the hearts. They seek only the gratification of
their sensual appetites. They gather the flowers, but taste not the fruits of love. They call women the “beau sex and know them only under
the enchanting form of ministers of pleasure. They may appear thus to those who have only eyes; by those who have hearts they will always
be considered as sacred objects of reverence and love. A man who thinks and feels, views in woman the beneficent creature who nourished him with her milk, and watched over his helpless infancy; a consoling being who soothes his pains and softens his sorrows by her tenderness and even by her levity and sport…a husband is necessary to give her
a position in society; but is considered of so little importance to her happiness, that in the choice of one her inclination is very seldom consulted.
…her hair was dressed a la Ninon de l’Enclos, part of it fastened on
the top of her head, the rest hanging about her neck in loose curls.
I have become acquainted with some Creole ladies who, having staid
in the island during the revolution, relate their sufferings in a manner
which harrows up the soul; and dwell on the recollection of their long
lost happiness melancholy delight. St. Domingo was formerly a garden.
Every inhabitant lived on his estate like a Sovereign ruling his slaves with despotic sway, enjoying all that luxury could invent, or fortune procure.
The ball announced by the admiral exceeded all expectations and we are
still all extacy. Boats, covered with carpets, conveyed the company from
the shore to the vessel, which was anchored about a half a mile from the
land, and on entering the ballroom a fairy palace presented itself to the
view. The decks were floored in; a roof of canvas was suspended
over the whole length of the vessel, which reached the floor on each side, and formed a beautiful apartment. With glasses and lights beyond number, Innumerable lustres of chrystal and wreaths of natural flowers ornamented the ceiling; and rose and orange trees, in full blossom, ranged round the room, filled the air with fragrance. The seats were elevated, and separated from the part appropriated to dancing, by a
light balustrade. A gallery for the musicians was placed round the mainmast, and the whole presented to the eye an elegant saloon, raised by magic in a wilderness of sweets. Clara and myself, accompanied by
her husband and Major B ---, were among the first who arrived. Never had
I beheld her so interesting. A robe of white crape shewed to advantage the contours of her elegant person. Her arms and bosom were bare;
her black hair, arranged a la grecque gives her an air truly interesting, fastened on the top with a brilliant comb, was ornamented by a rose which seemed to have been thrown there by accident.
We were presented to the admiral, who appeared struck by the figure of Clara, and was saying some very flattering things, when a flourish of martial music announced the arrival of the General. The admiral hastened to meet him, and they walked round the room together.
There began her empire like that of Venus rising from the waves---
here then was the Theatre on which Clara exhibited for the first time, where she distanc’d all her rivals. Dressed with a license which can
be authoriz’d only by the heat (for she was almost naked) she was led round the room by an officer, where as a belle-femme and a stranger
her vanity was fully gratified by the buzzes of admiration, her husband delighted by the splendor of what he deemed his property follow’d
her at a small distance, at length she was seated, but rous’d from her contemplation of surrounding objects by a flourish of music she turn’d
her eyes to the door and saw the general, this moment was decisive, he caught her eye, and saw for that night nothing but herself---
When the dances began the general leaned against the orchestra opposite Clara. Her eyes met his. She bent them to the ground, raised them timidly
and found those of the General fixed on her: a glow of crimson suffused itself over her face and bosom. I observed her attentively and knew
it was the flush of triumph! She declined dancing, but when the walses began she was led out. Those who have not seen Clara walse know not
half her charms. There is a physiognomy in her form! Every motion as if
full of soul. The gracefulness of her arms is unequalled, and she is lighter
than gossamer. The eyes of the general dwelt on her alone, and I heard
him inquire of several who she was.
The walse finished, she walked round the room leaning on the arm of Major
B----. The general followed, and meeting her husband, asked (pointing
to Clara) if he knew the name of the lady. Madame St. Louis, was the reply.
I thought she was an American said the general. So she is, replied St. Louis, but her husband is a Frenchman. That’s true, added the general, but they
say he’s a d----d jealous fool, is he here? He has the honour of answering
you, said St. Louis. The general was embarrassed for a moment, but recovering himself said, I am not surprised at your being jealous, for she is
a charming creature. And he continued uttering so many flattering things
that St. Louis was in the best humour imaginable. When Clara heard the
story, she laughed, and, I saw, was delighted with a conquest she now considerd assured.
When she sat down, Major B---- presented the General to her, and his
pointed attention rendered her the object of universal admiration. He
retired at midnight: the ball continued. An elegant collation was served
up, and at sunrise we returned home!
Secret History; or, The Horrors of St. Domingo, in a Series of Letters,
Written by a Lady at Cape Francois to Col. Burr, late Vice-President of the United States, Principally During the Command of General Rochambeau. Philadelphia: Bradford & Inskeep, 1808.
The Loves Of Aaron Burr:
Portraits in Corsetry & Binding
Drawing connections between her own interpretive work
and the historic corsets exhibited in
Fashioning the Body: An Intimate History of the Silhouette
Camilla Huey will speak on the changing architectural, structural, and functional forms
of corsets, corset-making, materials, and methodologies. The artist employs these
forms in her unique approach to analyzing portraits of nine 18th- and 19th-century women. Through ephemera, fetishism, material culture, and texts, the artist
invites the audience to follow both design and historic research as she explores biographical narrative. She will bring selected works from her exhibition,
The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding
Preview May 7, 6pm Bard Graduate Center
38 West 86th Street, New York City 10024
$25 RSVP firstname.lastname@example.org
The Premiere of
The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding Film
with select works from the exhibition at the Morris-Jumel Mansion. Manhattan's oldest house the very place where the lives of these women, filming and exhibition took place.
A reception and screening with discussion to follow.
View the works of Yinka Shonibare, MBE, Colonial Arrangements before.
Premiere May 14, 6pm Morris-Jumel Mansion
65 Jumel Terrace, New York City 10032
$25 RSVP email@example.com
Camilla Huey (artist/couturière) has exhibited artwork at the Bard Graduate Center
and the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City. Her exhibit, The Loves of Aaron Burr: Portraits in Corsetry & Binding, paid homage to the women who surrounded and influenced this controversial founding father.