Love and Ambition of Maria Cosway

The unrequited love and ambition of
Maria Cosway

In 1781 on the 18 January, the son of a schoolmaster from Devon married the daughter of a successful Italian innkeeper from Livorno. He was twenty years her senior and known for his profligate lifestyle. A union with a modern twist! She, a beautiful, talented artist. He, a painter of miniatures, whose self-portrait, in profile, shows a foppishly dressed, rather effeminate man sporting a curled and powdered wig. But look at her “selfie” and note the difference! Maria Cosway, although dressed in the fashion of late eighteenth century, with a turban atop her powered curls, adopts an extreme and unusual pose for this time.

Maria Cosway Self-Portrait
Maria Cosway Self-Portrait

She stares defiantly out of the picture, with her arms firmly crossed, letting the viewer know she is no ‘wilting violet.’ Was it a gesture of frustration? Did she feel she never fully achieved her potential? After all, there is little indication of her artistic career. No palette, no brushes, no easel. Yet, she had exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts and her painting ‘The Hours’ was greatly admired. Apart from a promising career as ‘a portraitist and history painter,’ she was an outstanding musician, who in later years founded schools and did pioneering work in education for woman. An enviable CV, even by the standards of today! What was the cause of her resentment? It took the form of Richard Cosway, her husband, who jealous of her ability, prevented his wife from selling her paintings to achieve greater artistic recognition. Who instead, preferred her to play the role of ‘the Hostess with the Mostest’ at his fashionable, though it is also believed, immoral parties, frequented by the Prince of Wales. Who did not want to be embarrassed by an independent wife who earned her own money?

Richard Cosway Self-Portrait
Richard Cosway Self-Portrait (1770)

In the summer of 1786, she accompanied her husband to Paris where he was to work on a commission for the Duc d’Orléans. A fateful decision, as in this city she would meet the second man in her life, an American diplomat, one Thomas Jefferson. For him, it was love at first sight. For her, an initial impression of his importance and public persona. Today, it is not certain if their whirlwind relationship/affair extended beyond country walks and romantic letters.

In October, Maria returned to London with Richard, leaving Jefferson to nurse a broken heart! He would later immortalize their impossible love in a 4500-word letter – a Dialogue between the Head and the Heart. After Paris, they continued to exchange letters for the rest of their lives. She, in 1838, would end her days at the school she founded in Italy. He, at his home in America, Monticello. He is remembered as the author of the Declaration of Independence. She, the talented daughter of an innkeeper who captured the heart of a future President. Would she perhaps, given her passion for art, have preferred the legacy of a great artist? We shall never know.

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