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The exquisite art of Isabelle de Borchgrave on view at Hillwood Estate, Museum & Gardens
Green Small Bag. Photo © Andreas von Einsiedel. © Créations Isabelle de Borghgrave.

WASHINGTON, DC.- A selection of iconic dresses, reinterpreted in trompe l’oeil paper masterpieces by Belgian artist Isabelle de Borchgrave, are presented in the exhibition Prêt-à-Papier: The Exquisite Art of Isabelle de Borchgrave, on view at Hillwood Estate, Museum and Gardens from June 16 to December 30, 2012. The first exhibition of the artist’s work to be presented in Washington, DC, Prêt-à-Papier brings together more than 25 of de Borchgrave’s quintessential interpretations of historical costumes and haute couture dresses, with six new works made for this exhibition, including one commissioned solely for Hillwood.

For over 15 years, inspired by the rich history of fashion represented in European paintings, famous costumes in museum collections, and designs of the grand couturiers, de Borchgrave has turned her passion for painting toward the recreation of elaborate costumes – crumpling, pleating, braiding, and painting the surface of simple rag paper to achieve the effect of textiles and create the illusion of haute couture.

“Hillwood founder Marjorie Merriweather Post absolutely loved the lavish apparel of the Russian imperial family and 18th-century French aristocracy, and was equally passionate about modern couture,” explained Hillwood executive director Kate Markert. “This is all seen in the objects and personal items she collected and left for the public to enjoy at Hillwood, making it a perfect venue to showcase Isabelle de Borchgrave’s exquisite works of art,” she continued. “We’re thrilled that this exhibition launches a new program at Hillwood that adds contemporary and outdoor initiatives to the current presentation of exhibitions to offer added perspectives on the collections, gardens, and the Marjorie Merriweather Post life story.”

By reconstructing dresses from key periods in fashion history, including gowns worn by famous figures and those created by prominent fashion designers, Prêt-à-Papier presents a range of styles from the late 17th to the early 20th century. The exhibition is being presented in Hillwood’s Adirondack Building and also animates spaces in the Mansion, reinterpreting both the art objects and Post’s extraordinary collection of 20th-century apparel.

The sumptuous apparel of the royalty of the 18th and 19th centuries revered by Post, and depicted in the paintings and decorative arts she collected, take on an added dimension in the work of de Borchgrave. The costumes of Tsar Peter the Great and Empress Josephine, for example, come to life, with de Borchgrave’s own intricate painting and manipulation of the paper convincingly mimicking the finest brocades, damasks, and silks. For the work commissioned by Hillwood, de Borchgrave draws inspiration from the life-like details, textures, and opulent colors of the main figure’s dress in Karl Briullov’s The Countess Samoilova. This dress is displayed In the Pavilion at Hillwood with the grand-scale painting that inspired it, along with a Boyar Wedding Dress that de Borchgrave interpreted from the sister painting to Hillwood’s A Boyar Wedding Feast – Konstantin Makovsky’s The Russian Bride’s Attire, at the San Francisco Legion of Honor.

The period styles are joined by works inspired by turn-of-the-century fashion designers Mariano Fortuny and Charles Frederick Worth. Classic, crisp Fortuny pleats – the construction of which still remain a mystery to most – are recreated expertly in a series of dresses based on the famous designs, while the glamorous construction and intricate details of a Worth gown stand out in a pure white couture creation. Post herself favored the evening looks of Callot Soeurs. And in Post’s dressing room, visitors barely discern that the detailed lace, ribbons, and lamé of a 1920s style dress from the prominent Parisian fashion house are crafted completely from paper.

The Artist
A painter by training and by passion, Isabelle de Borchgrave turned her talent for trompe l’oeil to the paper sculptures that reinterpret and recreate almost 300 years of fashion after a 1994 trip to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. With the Canadian theatrical costumier Rita Brown, she set out to create Papiers à la Mode, a collection of costumes, all in paper and paint, that offered a fresh look at fashion history, from Elizabeth I to Coco Chanel. Her collections that followed included an immersive dive into the 19th-century Venice-inspired line from Fortuny, a look at the famous figures of I Medici, and Ballet Russes, whose playful figures and saturated colors nod to her love of the Nabis movement. Over the 15-year period since, de Borchgrave has also created commissions for museum collections in America and Europe. de Borchgrave’s name is also readily associated with the world of design. For Caspari she has created popular paper dinnerware and other products for entertaining. With Gien, Target, and Villeroy and Boch, she has brought her bright colors and exciting patterns to a world of entertaining that is accessible for all.

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