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The Cosway Affair


Maria Cosway
by
Richard Cosway
Maria Cosway was one of several women with whom Jefferson socialized during his tenure in France. The others (three were American, five were French) were more eminent. Abigail Adams was, of course, the wife and companion of Jefferson’s colleague. Angelica Schuyler Church was the daughter of Philip Schuyler, general in the American army during the revolution and the wife of well-to-do Englishman John Baker Church. Anne Willing Bingham’s father had been the partner of the Revolutionary War financier Robert Morris. William Howard Adams noted that her husband, William Bingham “had made a huge fortune in the war.” Madame de Tesse was Lafayette’s aunt by marriage. Madame d’Houdetot was Franklin’s inamorata and the person who invited Jefferson into Paris’s salon society. Madame de Tott was a friend of Madame de Tesse.
This portrait is alleged to be a rendering of Thomas Jefferson by Maria Cosway. The picture is undated 
Madame de Corney, in addition to providing her charming company, was useful to Jefferson as the center of a formidable network of political operatives. Madame de Brehan was the sister-in-law and mistress of Count de Moustier, part time French diplomat and full time scoundrel. 

Maria was born in Leghorn, Italy in 1759. Her father was an expatriate Englishman. Her mother was Italian. Charles Hadfield, a successful hosteller, saw that his daughter received a liberal education in her home city of Florence. Her subjects were music and painting. Her election to the Florentine Academia del Designo shows that she was a gifted student. She went on to study in Rome with Pompeo Batoni who some considered the greatest artist of his day. When her father died in 1781, he mother moved her daughter to London where Angelica Kauffman took Maria under her wing. A painter herself, Kauffman introduced Maria to her circle of connections including the antiquarian/collector Charles Townley whom Maria had met in Florence. One of the painters in Townley’s entourage was a man named Richard Cosway. This chameleon-like fellow was just then beginning to flourish as the court painter for George III’s debauched son. 
Cosway is described as “a diminutive figure with a reputation for arrogance and womanising.” Small in stature (like his future wife), he asserted himself through flamboyance both in his behavior and dress. While this made him a target for sarcasm, his aplomb and artistic talent assured his welcome in London society. A description of an Academicians' meeting in the early 1770s notes that Cosway "attended in all the gay costume of the drawing-room, with pink heels to his shoes, &c., but the room was so full he could not find a place. 'What', said Frank Hayman, 'can nobody make room for the little monkey?"' 

A year in London having depleted the Hadfield inheritance, Maria’s mother set out to find a suitable match for her lovely daughter. Richard Cosway appears to have made the high bid in the form of a “wedding gift” of 2800 pounds. Maria referred to this in a letter saying, “I was informed about Mister Cosway, his offer was accepted, my mother’s desires were satisfied and I married under age.” The wedding took place on 18 January 1781. Richard provided Maria with material comforts and access to high society. She became the attractive, cultured assistant who promoted Richard's career. The couple entertained lavishly at Schomberg House, their home on stylish Pall Mall. During the ten years of her life with Richard, Maria, though a devout Roman Catholic, acquired a reputation as an international hostess and was linked romantically by gossips to several notable men including the Prince of Wales, the Italian castrato Luigi Marchesi and the Corsican general, Pasquale Paoli.

That Richard was charmed by his beautiful wife is apparent from the several cameos and portraits he painted of her and of them together. Her sentiments toward him are 
Picture detail: Richard Cosway in the foreground of Johan Zoffany’s The Portraits of the Academicians of the Royal Academy (1772).
not hard to imagine. Her mother had forced her to surrender her own aspirations so her mother could live comfortably in London. In these anguishing circumstances, it is easy to see Maria retreating into herself. As the time passed, she must have become increasingly coy. By August of 1786, she had become a courtesan deft in the art of deception.

Marie had only one child. Louisa Paolina Angelica was born on 4 May 1790. Three months after its birth, Maria left here husband and moved to Paris to avoid the moments of the mental illness which gradually overcame him. When Angelica died on 29 July 1796, Richard had her body embalmed and put it on display in the foyer of his home. Some time after this Maria arranged for the annulment of her marriage. Her attempts to establish herself as an artist having failed, in 1802 she became the superintendent for a school for girls. This establishment closed in 1809. Three years later, Maria was invited by the Duke of Lodi to found a convent school for girls in Lodi, Italy. She accepted this invitation and relocated there. She continued in this position until her death on 5 January 1838.
Maria Cosway by Richard Cosway (Undated)
Picture detail: Trumbull’s visage in The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown. He pictured himself between Colonel Cobb, Aide-de-Camp to General Washington, and Maj. General James Clinton. Trumbull had been a member of Washington's staff for a few weeks prior to the British evacuation of Boston. He also witnessed Cornwallis's Yorktown surrender, though he was not then in the military.
The great interpreter of the American Revolution, John Trumbull, introduced Maria Cosway to Thomas Jefferson. Trumbull came to Paris early in August 1786 to record the faces of French military officers who had contributed to the American victory at Yorktown. His plan was to incorporate these images into another of his pictorial histories of the American War for Independence. While doing his preliminary sketches for The Surrender of Cornwallis at Yorktown, Trumbull stayed at the home of the American ambassador. 

Jefferson must have been pleased to have Trumbull’s company. When Trumbull arrived, Jefferson was, so to speak, between engagements. He had completed Cabanis’ course on the French concept of Progress the previous fall and was comfortably established as a citizen of the enlightened world. But after a year of socializing with French lumieres, he had grown bored as a traveler in the salons—he had nothing more there to measure, weigh, or construct. 

By the time of Trumbull's arrival, Jefferson had established a close personal friendship with Louis Alexandre, duc de la Rochefoucault d’Anville and his family. The duke had gathered around him a circle of reformers whose company Jefferson kept at the duke’s town residence, at his country estate (Chateau de la Roche-Guyon northwest of the city) and at Hotel de Langeac, Jefferson’s residence on the western end of the Champs-Élysées. This circle included Condorcet and Lafayette as well as 
many members of Franklin's masonic lodge - with which the duke was connected. Jefferson's affiliation with these men shows he was re-engaging in politics. He was joining a (progressive) movement, however, that was effectively stalled. It would remain stalled until February of 1787 when the king reconvened the Assembly of Notables in the vain hope it would authorize a new series of taxes.

Trumbull had come to Paris from London where he had been studying with Benjamin West. While there he had sketched Generals Richard Howe and Henry Clinton, among others British officers, for his portrait of the British assault on Bunker Hill. In Paris he had a much longer list of likenesses to create. He would take another eleven years to finish Cornwallis’s Surrender at Yorktown. The finished work would include thirty-four visages. In addition to General Washington’s and his own, Trumbull presented fourteen French officers. One of these, the Marquis de Chastellux, was a personal friend of the American ambassador.
The Marquis de Chastellux is one of fourteen French Officers pictured in Trumbull's painting of the Yorktown surrender. The marquis is the tenth figure from the left. To his right is Baron Viomenil, another masonic member of Rochefoucault's circle.
During the first week in September, they ventured farther afield. Thomas took Maria first to see the gardens on the western edge of the Bois de Boulogne. They toured the grounds of Comte d’Artois’ Château de Bagatelle. From there they went to le Ruins de Madrid on the bank of Seine whose vista stretched from Pont de Neuilly on their right to St Cloud on their left. Towering above them on the river’s far side was Mount Valerian and it Hermitage. 

​A few days later they set off on a longer trip. This time they drove across Pont de Neuilly and through the wooded hills of the Seine. The outward leg of this excursion took them past Madame Du Berry’s lovely château and gardens at Louveciennes and by Louis XIV’s residence at Marly. After walking the grounds of the palace at St Germain-en-Laye, the sightseers stopped at Marly-le-RoiThere they found a royal home at the head of a pavilioned quadrangle—Jefferson later interpreted it as the Rotunda and The Lawn at the University of Virginia.
Self-portrait of the artist with his wife. (c. 1782). "James Northcote, a contemporary of the couple, noted that Maria, 'from necessity married Cosway, the miniature painter, who at that time adored her, tho' she always despised him...'. Whether this be true or not, Maria cared for her husband in his latter years and organised a magnificent funeral and monument for him. After Richard's death in 1821, Maria also organised a sale of his effects. This took place in February 1822, but she did not sell everything that her husband had owned or painted. She took a selection of his work to a convent in Lodi, Italy where she lived until her death in 1838. The fact that Maria owned this drawing at her death indicates nostalgia for the happier times the couple shared."
 Online reference: http://www.bonhams.com/auctions/10578/lot/122/.
Jefferson had a quirk that made him uncomfortable as a suitor. William Howard Adams explained in The Paris Years of Thomas Jefferson that this ideosyncracy was compounded by another powerful force: Jefferson was both fascinated and horrified by France’s glamorous libidinous society. One part of him was intrigued by its beau monde and its femmes dangereuse. But another part of him was offended by it for violating his republican vision. Women, in his traditionalist view, 
Trumbull encountered Richard Cosway and his wife while doing research for his Yorktown painting. Together they visited the art treasures of the French capital. Jefferson soon joined them. When the two artists turned back to their work, the American ambassador took over as Maria Cosway's escort. Thomas and Maria visited the arcades at the Palais Royal then inspected the duc d’Orlean’s collection of art. Another day they visited the Louvre Palace. 
Louis XIV had begun building Marly more than a century before Thomas and Maria's visit. At one point its pumps, which drew water from the Seine to supply the Marly fountains, were considered the largest machines in Europe. After the construction of Versailles, the water and the monarchs who had come to Marly went to Versailles. Marly fell into disuse, but its pumps continued raising water from the Seine. As they did, mist formed above their turbines. Rainbows formed in this mist. These were the objects Thomas and Maria stopped at Marly to admire. Resting in the “Bowers of Marly”, they gazed at  rainbows —and probably daydreamed. 

​In these charmed moments it seems that Thomas and Maria would have fallen in love. What happened? Thomas probably did fall in love, although he quickly recovered himself. Maria probably did not fall in love, although she seemed later to wish she had. 
St Cloud
Maria Cosway by Richard Cosway (c. 1783).

    Two of Thomas and Maria's September 1786 Excursions:
​       1) to Chateau Bagatelle and the Ruins de Madrid
       2) to St Germain-en-Laye - Marly-le-Roi - Louveciennes

1788 miniature portrait of Jefferson by John Trumbull. Courtesy of the Thomas Jefferson Foundation.
bore the burden of the family. He considered modesty and domestic virtue in women to be the ultimate foundation of social harmony. He believed that the Jews, the Greeks, the Romans, the Swiss and the Dutch had all lost their republican principles and habits–and their Republican governments–because their women became liberated. This perspective made it difficult for
him to sustain relationships with his American female friends. Indeed his friendships with Angelica Church, Anne Willing Bingham, and Abigail Adams all eventually collapsed.

These things in mind, a different picture emerges of Thomas and Maria in the glade at Marly that sultry afternoon. Sweetly scented Maria was still reclining at his side. Muses were still playing their bewitching melodies. Cupid, his bowstring drawn, still hovered by Thomas's shoulder. The moment was still rapturous. Everything was exactly right . . . Except the suitor’s psyche! Behind his self-assured façade, a turmoil raged that Calliope herself could not have calmed. 

Jefferson took pleasure in the company of courtesans like the deceptive creature who shared his company this breathless afternoon. His attentive companion, who shared his newly enlightened passion for music, literature, and the arts, waited for the ambassador to take the initiative. He, however, was powerless to suspend his vigil against demimondes who might undo the holy cause of liberty. Added to this were the uncertainties he felt about his ability as a suitor and his haunting guilt for his wife's death. Jefferson was, in other words, a mess! Could these conflicts be resolved? No! He could succumb, as he did, to the heat of a Marly moment. But he could not keep an emotional fire lit. Thomas extinguished this one with calculated assist from Maria.
Maria Cosway had no comparable inner conflicts when came to men—she was a courtesan who knew how to put men at their ease. At the time she met Jefferson, she might have felt unfulfilled as an artist, but she had probably come to terms with her life, which centered in her marriage. Her husband was a “little monkey” who eventually succumbed to insanity, but in the summer of 1786, he admired her and probably loved her. She may have despised him, but there is no reason to believe that she objected to the comfortable life he provided her or to the company of the powerful and wealthy people she was able to keep because of him. She proved in her later life to be a faithful Catholic. When she met Jefferson she was probably faithful to her husband. 

In respect to her “affair” with the American ambassador, they both had free time just then. She was an artist and appreciated art and everything fine. No doubt she enjoyed seeing them in and around Paris. She was probably pleased to find an admirer in Thomas Jefferson, but Jefferson was neither the first nor the last man she met. She probably found the tall Virginian a little dull and socially clumsy, but it was her business to be charming and make 
Richard and Maria Cosway by Richard Cosway
 (c. 1785).
men like Thomas Jefferson feel at ease. This is what she undertook to do with the American ambassador. Her success can be measured in the warm and caring comments he directed towards her. 

Thomas Jefferson holds a special place in the hearts of his countrymen, but there was nothing particular about Jefferson or his position that distinguished him from other great men Maria Cosway met and romanced.  Nor is there reason to think that he fulminated in some special charismatic way in her presence. Jefferson made this apparent in the famous conversation his head had with his heart on 12 October. It was probably a blow to his self- esteem, but he was a grown-up and strong enough to face the reality the Maria Cosway did not and never would love him.


Jefferson realized this in the weeks after he broke his wrist. On or around 18 September Jefferson experienced this unfortunate accident. Because he said little of it himself the history of the event derives from accounts left by others. Marie Kimball noted a letter Louis Guillaume Le Veillard sent to Benjamin Franklin’s son Temple on 20 September. Le Veillard, who was Benjamin Franklin’s neighbor, wrote, “Mr. Jefferson dislocated his right writs in trying to leap over a large kettle in the small court yard . . . I do not see how he can write before a month.” [Jefferson - The Scene in Europe 1784 -1789. Coward – McCann, Inc. 1950. 168.] Whether or not this is what happened, Jefferson was incapacitated for more than a month and never fully recovered the health of his wrist. ​
A view from Mr Cosway's breakfast room, Pall Mall by William Birch (1789). Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.
In George Green Shackleford’s opinion, “it would be an exaggeration to call it, as Julian Boyd does, ‘one of the most notable love letters in the English language.” Shackelford admirably summarizes Jefferson’s inner conflict:

“When Jefferson’s head warns him that friendship with Maria was a threat to his own tranquility, his heart replied that they merely shared interests in architecture, art, and music. The Heart admitted that he falsely had used official business as an excuse to break an engagement at the Hotel de Rochefoucauld so that they might lunch together, visit St. Cloud, sup at Ruggieri’s restaurant, and hear a concert by Krumpholtz. The Head admitted joyous recollection of a day ‘as long as a Lapland summer day,’ when they viewed together the beautiful hills along the Seine. Among the sights of greatest pleasure had been the rainbows created by the machine at Marly, the chateau, gardens, and statues of Marly, the Pavilion of de Musique at Louveciennes, and the folies of the Desert de Retz. Sternly the Head admonished the incorrigible Heart, saying, ‘you were imprudently engaging your affections’ with a lady more for her beauty than for her talents. The Heart relies that in America, ‘the lady, who paints landscapes so intimately would find ‘subjects worthy of immortality to render her pencil immortal’: Niagara Falls, the Passage of the Potomac through the Blue Ridge Mountains, the Natural Bridge of Virginia, Monticello. In mock romantic tone, Jefferson’s Heart referred to his lonely state as a widower and wondered whether anyone might be able to console him. Soberly and honestly the Head admonished that his most effectual antidote was to retire to intellectual pleasures, since ‘Friendship is but another name for an alliance with the follies and misfortunes of others . . . ”

The injury ended Thomas’s late-summer idyl. It would have ended anyway because Maria and Richard were planning to return to London, but the injury made her departure harder for the infatuated American diplomat. He suffered alone in his mansion while she packed and bid sad farewells to Parisian society. As she was doing this, Jefferson came face to face with reality. Convalescing alone, Jefferson realized that having an affair with Maria Cosway was not a good idea. The last time Thomas saw Maria was the day she and Richard left Paris—5 October 1786. Alone again, he returned to his home on the Champs Elysees where he ruminated on the matter for a week. He then wrote out his deliberations and sent them to "Maria Cosway". MY DEAR MADAM, he began, Having performed the last sad office of handing you into your carriage at the pavillon de St. Denis, and seen the wheels get actually into motion, I turned on my heel & walked, more dead than alive, to the opposite door . . . I was carried home. Seated by my fireside, solitary & sad, the following dialogue took place between my Head & my Heart . . .
Maria was obviously not prepared to deal with a letter like this. It took her two months to navigate through the tricky cross currents of Jefferson's self-directed dialogue. “Oh how I wish myself in those beautiful places,” she finally sighed. “Those enchanted grottoes! Those magnificent mountains, rivers! . . . If I should be happy enough to come again in the sum[mer of 1787 to] Paris I hope we shall pass many agreeable days, [but] I am in a millio[n] fears about it.” Jefferson did not reply until he returned from the tour he made of southern France and northern Italy during the winter 1787. It was clear by then that he had broken the Marly spell.
Maria Cosway with the bust of Leonardo by Richard Cosway (1789). This image is from Mary and Richard Cosway, Dr. Tino Gipponi, Ed.. Umberto Allemandi & C, Turin, 1998.