Maria Cosway

Maria Cosway
Maria Cosway

Self-portrait of Maria Cosway, 1787.
Birth name Maria Luisa Caterina Cecilia Hadfield
Born 11 June 1760(1760-06-11)
Florence, Italy
Died 5 January 1838(1838-01-05) (aged 77)
Lodi, Italy
Nationality Italian and English
Field Painter of Portrait Miniatures

Maria Cosway (1760–1838) was an Anglo-Italian artist, who exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. She also worked in France, where she cultivated a large circle of friends and clients, and later in Italy. She commissioned the first portrait of Napoleon to be seen in England. Her paintings and engravings are held by the British Museum, the New York Public Library and the British Library. Her work was included in recent exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1995-1996 and the Tate Britain in 2006.

Cosway was also an accomplished composer, musician, and society hostess. She is notable as a romantic interest of the American statesman Thomas Jefferson in 1786 while he served as the American envoy to Paris. They kept up a lifelong correspondence until his death in 1826.

Cosway founded a girls' school in Paris, which she directed from 1803 to 1809. Soon after it closed, she founded a Catholic convent and girls' school in Lodi, which she directed until her death.


Childhood in Italy

Maria Cosway by her husband, Richard Cosway.

Cosway was born Maria Luisa Caterina Cecilia Hadfield (pronounced Mariah) to an English father of "lowly origin" and an Italian mother living in Florence, Italy in 1760. Her father, Charles Hadfield, is said by to have been a native of Shrewsbury. An innkeeper at Livorno, he had become very wealthy.[1][2][3][4] Maria Hadfield's parents ran three inns for British aristocracy taking the Grand Tour in Tuscany.[5][6] Maria demonstrated artistic talent at a young age during her Roman Catholic convent education. She remained a devout Catholic all her life.

The large Hadfield family suffered four of its children being killed by a mentally ill nursemaid. She was caught after being overheard talking about murdering Maria. The nurse claimed that her young victims would be sent to Heaven after she killed them. She was sentenced to life in prison. Only Maria, her brothers Richard and George, and a younger sister Charlotte survived.[7][8]

At her father's death, Maria expressed a strong desire to become a nun. Three years later, her mother returned with her to England; they settled in London in 1779.

Her brother George Hadfield became an architect. He would later design Robert E. Lee's Arlington House in Virginia.[9]

Early career

While still in Florence, Maria Hadfield studied art under Violente Cerroti and Johann Zoffany. From 1773 to 1778, she copied Old Masters at the Uffizi Gallery. For her work, she was elected to the Academia del Disegno in Florence in 1778.[6] She also went to Rome, where she studied art under Batoni. She studied with Anton Raphael Mengs, Henry Fuseli, and Joseph Wright of Derby.

Two women artists, Angelica Kauffmann and Mary Moser, were among the original members of the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1768. Kauffmann helped Maria Hadfield to participate in academy exhibitions. In 1781 she exhibited for the first time, showing the following three works: Rinaldo, Creusa appearing to Aeneas (engraved in mezzotint by V. Green), and Like patience on a monument smiling at grief.[8] She went on to gain success as a painter of mythological scenes.[10]

Marriage and social success

Richard Cosway's self-portrait in miniature, c. 1770

On 18 January 1781, Maria Hadfield married fellow artist, the celebrated miniature portrait painter Richard Cosway, in what is thought to be a marriage of convenience. He was 20 years her senior, known as a libertine, and was repeatedly unfaithful.[4][9] Richard was "commonly described as resembling a monkey."[11]

Her Italian manners were so foreign that her husband kept Maria secluded until she fully mastered the English language. But, he also realized his wife's talent and helped her to develop it.[12] More than 30 of her works were displayed at the Royal Academy of Art from 1781[13] until 1801.[6] She soon increased her reputation as an artist, especially when her portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire in the character of Cynthia was exhibited. Among her personal acquaintances were Lady Lyttelton, the Hon. Mrs. Darner, the Countess of Aylesbury, Lady Cecilia Johnston, and the Marchioness of Townshend.

In 1784, the Cosways moved into Schomberg House, Pall Mall, which became a fashionable salon for London society. Richard was Principal Painter of the Prince of Wales, and Maria served as hostess to artists, members of royalty including the Prince, and politicians including Horace Walpole, Gouverneur Morris and James Boswell.[1][3][4] She could speak several languages, and due to her travels in Italy and France, she gained an international circle of friends.[3][10] These included Angelica Schuyler Church and artist John Trumbull. Maria organized concerts and recitals for her guests. She became known as "The Goddess of Pall-Mall".[4]

Richard and Maria had one child together, Louisa Paolina Angelica, but the couple eventually separated. Maria often travelled on the continent, on one occasion accompanied by Luigi Marchesi, a famous Italian castrato. (Richard Cosway had painted his portrait, which afterward was engraved by Luigi Schiavonetti (1790).) At the same time Richard was having an open affair with Mary Moser, with whom he travelled for six months. In his notebooks he made "invidious comparisons between her and Mrs Cosway", implying that she was much more sexually responsive than his wife.[14]

When staying in Lyon, Maria Cosway made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Virgin Mary at Loreto. This was to fulfill a vow she had made after giving birth to a living child. Her young daughter died while the mother was on the continent.

Work in Napoleonic France

Engraving by Francesco Bartolozzi of Maria Cosway's painting The Hours, described by Jacques-Louis David as "ingenious"

Throughout this period Cosway cultivated international contacts in the art world. When she sent an engraving of her allegorical painting The Hours to her friend the French painter Jacques-Louis David, he replied, "On ne peut pas faire une poésie plus ingénieuse et plus naturelle" ("one could not create a more ingenious or more natural poetic work").[15] She became famous throughout France and had customers from all over the Continent.[12]

Cosway also showed an interest in French politics. In 1797, then living on Oxford Street in London, she commissioned artist Francesco Cossia to create what was to be the first portrait of Napoleon seen in England. Cosway may have been the first person in Britain to see the face of Napoleon.[3] Her commission of the portrait would later be called the "earliest recorded evidence of British admiration for Napoleon."[3] Later acquired by Sir John Soane, the painting is displayed in the Breakfast Room of Sir John Soane's Museum.[3]

While living in Paris between 1801 to 1803, Cosway copied the paintings of the Old Masters from the Louvre for publication as etchings in England. After the death of her daughter while she was in France, she did not finish the project.

Maria Cosway met Napoleon while copying Napoleon Crossing the Alps by her friend David. She became close friends with Napoleon's uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch. During the Peace of Amiens, she gave British visitors tours of the Cardinal's art collection. One historian pointed out that her admiration for Napoleon may have been inspired by her then-lover Pasquale Paoli, a Corsican general in exile in London, who had been an associate of Bonaparte's.[3]

Relationship with Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson in 1788 by John Trumbull. An intimate friend, he and Maria corresponded for the rest of their lives after his time in Paris. While their relationship seems to have been romantic, it does not seem to have been a sexual one.

In August 1786, the Cosways were introduced by John Trumbull to Thomas Jefferson, who was serving as the American Minister to France in Paris. The widower Jefferson was 43 and Cosway was 27 when they met.[10] After their first meeting at the Grain Market (Halles aux Bleds), Jefferson told his scheduled dinner companion that he needed to tend to official business so that he could spend the evening with Cosway at the Palais Royal.[11]

Cosway and Jefferson shared an interest in art and architecture; they attended exhibits throughout the city and countryside together.[16] He would write of their adventures: "How beautiful was every object! the Pont du Neuilly, the hills along the Seine, the rainbows of the Machine of Marly, the terraces of Saint Germain, the chateaux, the gardens, the statues of Marly, the Pavilion of Louveciennes... In the evening, when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we travelled over!"[11] Over the course of six weeks,[10] Jefferson developed a romantic attachment to Cosway as they spent each day together.

Upon Cosway's departure for London at the insistence of her husband,[10] Jefferson wrote her a love letter dated October 12–13, 1786. It has been called "The Dialogue of the Head vs. the Heart", in which he writes of his head's conversing with his heart, and the struggle between the practical and the romantic.[17]

I feel more fit for death than life. But when I look back on the pleasures of which it is a consequence, I am conscious they were worth the price I am paying.
      — Thomas Jefferson to Maria Cosway, "A Dialogue of the Head vs. the Heart"

Scholars suggest that Jefferson was particularly partial to a romantic attachment at this point in his life. His wife had died four years before; he had just learned of the death of his youngest daughter Lucy; and his other two daughters were away at school.[18] At least one account held that Cosway began to develop stronger feelings for Jefferson, but when she traveled to Paris to meet him again, she found him more distant.[10]

A devout Catholic who did not want to have children, she worried about pregnancy. Some historians believe that nothing further developed in their affair besides correspondence. Since Jefferson was very discreet, no one knows for sure about their relationship.[19][10] Their letters would continue for the rest of Jefferson's life after she contacted him again, following his ending his correspondence while he was still in Paris.[16][18][20] Historians such as Andrew Burstein have suggested that the relationship was romantic mostly on Jefferson's side, and that Cosway was his opposite, more artistic than rational.[21] Both parties saved their letters to each other.[10] Before Jefferson left Paris, he wrote to her, "I am going to America and you are going to Italy. One of us is going the wrong way, for the way will ever be wrong that leads us further apart."[18]

Cosway introduced Jefferson to her friend Angelica Schuyler Church, the sister-in-law of his rival Alexander Hamilton. Church kept up a correspondence with both Jefferson and Cosway in later life; her correspondence with them is held at the University of Virginia's archive.[22]

At Monticello, Jefferson kept an engraving done by Luigi Schiavonetti, from a drawing Richard Cosway made of Maria].[3][9] Cosway had Trumbull create a portrait of Jefferson which she kept in turn.[22] The Italian government gave the portrait she commissioned as a gift to the American government, on the occasion of America's bicentennial in 1976. It now hangs in the White House.[9]

Later life

Cosway eventually moved back to the continent of Europe. She travelled with her brother George Hadfield in Italy, where she lived in the north for three years. She returned to England after the death of her daughter at about age 10. Entering more deeply again into painting, Cosway completed several religious pictures for chapels.

Despite Napoleon's war with England, she traveled again to France. In Paris Cardinal Joseph Fesch persuaded her to establish a college for young ladies, which she managed from 1803 until 1809. The Duke of Lodi then invited her to Italy to establish a convent and Catholic school for girls in Lodi (near Milan), the Collegio delle Grazie. She directed the school until her death in 1838.

She returned to England for a brief period to care for her husband before he died in 1821. With the aid of her friend Sir John Soane, she auctioned Richard's large art collection, and used the funds for the convent school.[4][8]

In a letter to Jefferson (held by the University of Virginia), Cosway mourned the loss of old friends following the death of Angelica Schuyler Church. As a tribute to Church, Cosway designed a temple ceiling depicting the Three Graces surrounding her friend's name.[22] In June 1826, she wrote to the Italian engraver Giovanni Paolo Lasinio Junior, respecting the publication of her husband's drawings in Florence.[8][23]

Cosway died in 1838 at her school in Lodi.


Cosway's engravings from the Old Masters of the Louvre are held in the collection of the British Museum.[7] Two of her paintings that relate to a poem of Mary Robinson's were acquired by the New York Public Library. They were included in the exhibit Gothic Nightmares: Fuseli, Blake and the Romantic Imagination at the Tate Britain museum in London in 2006.[24]

From 1995 to 1996, the National Portrait Gallery in London held an exhibition entitled Richard and Maria Cosway: Regency Artists of Taste and Fashion, with 250 of their works on display.[4]

Works and reproductions

Cosway's principal works exhibited at the Royal Academy and later engraved are:

  • Clytie by V. Green
  • The Descent from the Cross by V. Green
  • Astrea instructing Arthegal by V. Green
  • The Judgment on Korah, Dathan, and Abiram by S. W. Reynolds
  • A Persian by Emma Smith
  • H.R.H. the Princess of Wales and the Princess Charlotte by S. W. Reynolds
  • The Hours by Francesco Bartolozzi
  • Lodona by Francesco Bartolozzi
  • The Guardian Angel, by S. Phillips
  • Going to the Temple, by P. W. Tomkins
  • The Birth of the Thames, by P. W. Tomkins
  • Creusa appearing to Aeneas by V. Green
  • The Preservation of Shadrach, Meshac, and Abednego, by W. S. Reynolds
  • Louis VII, King of France, before Becket's Tomb, by W. Sharp.

Cosway drew The Progress of Female Dissipation and The Progress of Female Virtue, published in 1800. She also published a series of 12 designs, entitled The Winter's Day contributed to Boydell's Shakespeare Gallery and Macklin's Poets. She etched all the plates in a large folio work entitled Gallery of the Louvre, represented by etchings executed solely by Mrs. Maria Cosway, with an Historical and Critical Description of all the Pictures which compose the Superb Collection, and a Biographical Sketch of the Life of each Painter, by J. Griffiths, &c. &c., (1802). Her numerous other plates, some in soft-ground etching, are held mostly by the British Library.[8]

See also

Further reading

  • Burnell, Carol. Divided Affections: The Extraordinary Life of Maria Cosway, Celebrity Artist and Thomas Jefferson's Impossible Love
  • Byrd, Max. Jefferson (1993)
  • Lloyd, Stephen. Richard and Maria Cosway, Edinburgh and London (1995)
  • Barnett, Gerald. Richard and Maria Cosway: A Biography
  • Beran, Michael Knox. Jefferson's Demons: Portrait of a Restless Mind
  • Beretti, Francis (ed.). Pascal Paoli à Maria Cosway, Lettres et documents, 1782-1803, Oxford, Voltaire Foundation (2003)
  • Brodie, Fawn. Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History. New York: Norton (1974)
  • Halliday, E. M. Understanding Thomas Jefferson
  • Kaminski, John P. Jefferson in Love: The Love Letters Between Thomas Jefferson and Maria Cosway
  • McCullough, David. John Adams



  1. ^ a b "Gazelle Book Services Limited.". Gazelle Book Services. Archived from the original on 2007-05-10. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  2. ^ The Living Age: By Making of America Project. University of Michigan. p. 816. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h "How England first saw Bonaparte: a painting by Francesco Cossia commissioned by Maria Cosway in 1797 was the first true portrait of Napoleon to be seen in England. It was acquired by Sir John Soane, who, as Xavier F. Salomon and Christopher Woodward explain, juxtaposed it with a miniature by Isabey in a comparison of the youthful hero with the tyrannical dictator.". Apollo. Retrieved 2007-08-01. [dead link]
  4. ^ a b c d e f "An artistic alliance - Richard and Maria Cosway - English artists". Magazine Antiques. 1995-12. Retrieved 2007-08-01. [dead link]
  5. ^ Pomponi, Francis. "Pascal Paoli à Maria Cosway, Lettres et documents, 1782-1803" (in French). Société des études robespierristes. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  6. ^ a b c "Maria Cosway, neé Hatfield (1760-1838)". Tate Britain. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  7. ^ a b Leslie, Stephen (1887). Dictionary of National Biography. pp. 278–279. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  8. ^ a b c d e Fagan, L. A. (1887). "Cosway, Maria Cecilia Louisa (fl. 1820), miniature painter". Dictionary of National Biography Vol. XII. Smith, Elder & Co.. Retrieved 2007-10-23. 
  9. ^ a b c d DeMauri, Stephen (2003-12). "Thomas Jefferson's Engraving of Maria Cosway". Monticello Foundation. Archived from the original on 2007-07-13. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h "Thomas Jefferson: Biography". National Park Service. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  11. ^ a b c "JEFFERSON’S PARIS". American Heritage. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  12. ^ a b A Cyclopaedia of Female Biography by Henry Gardiner, p. 214
  13. ^  "Maria Cosway". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. 
  14. ^ Schuchard Martha, Why Mrs Blake Cried: William Blake and the Erotic Imagination, Pimlico, 2007, p. 253
  15. ^ Bordes, Philippe, "Jacques-Louis David's Anglophilia on the Eve of the French Revolution", The Burlington Magazine, 1992, p. 485.
  16. ^ a b "Jefferson, Thomas". Britannica. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  17. ^ Jefferson, Thomas (1786-10-12). "Head and Heart Letter". Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  18. ^ a b c "Natalie Bober: Historian". Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  19. ^ Ellis, 1996
  20. ^ Norman K. Risjord. Thomas Jefferson. Google Books. p. 174. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  21. ^ "Andrew Burstein : Historian". Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  22. ^ a b c "Muse and Confidante: Angelica Schuyler Church". University of Virginia. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  23. ^ The folio volume is entitled : Raccolta di Disegni Originali scelti dai Portafogli del celebre Riccardo Cosway, R.A., e primo pittore del Serenissimo Principe di Wallia, posseduti dalla di lui vedova, la Signora Maria Cosway, e intagliati da Paolo Lasinio, figlio (1826).
  24. ^ "Room 4: Gothic Gloom". Tate Britain. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 

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