Rags to riches, fame to obscurity. And back again

The story of Maria Cosway has been rescued by feminist scholarship

In 1971 the academic Linda Nochlin posed the provocative question: “Why have there been no great women artists?” In answer to this conundrum, a whole new field of the history of art has opened up, and there has been ever-increasing research, exhibitions and publications devoted to the study of women artists. A National Museum of Women in the Arts has been founded in Washington, DC and a two-volume Dictionary of Women Artists was published in 2001. The long 18th century has been the focus of considerable research, though much of it has been focused on celebrated figures such as Rosalba Carriera, Angelica Kauffman and Elisabeth Vigée-Le Brun, and to a lesser extent on artists such as Katherine Read, Mary Moser, Anne Damer and Christina Robertson. It is clear that much work still needs to be done in re-evaluating the artistic production of the more famous artists, the records of whose lives are often shrouded in half-truths, and in rescuing the second-rank artists from the limbo of oblivion.

The career of Maria Cosway (1760-1838) is a good example of an artist, whose art has been overshadowed by her compelling life. Her marriage to an equally famous artistic personality launched her onto the artistic scenes of London and Europe, but it also may have compromised the critical reputation of her own achievement.

Carol Burnell’s new biography reveals Maria Cosway as a sensual, attractive, powerful yet vulnerable artistic woman. It is a richly researched and illustrated account of her attempt to gain identity, recognition and happiness, across a tumultuous Europe and against the odds. The life of Maria Cosway is one of rags to riches. An innkeeper’s daughter, she became one of the most famous women of her time. With Georgian London and revolutionary Europe as her backdrop, Cosway’s life was a continual struggle between her artistic and social skills, in contrast with her roles as a wife and mother. It also involved tension between her sensual nature and her Catholic faith. The closeness of her friendships and her affairs with some of the most charismatic and famous men of her time, also conflicted with her efforts to win respect as an artist. Aware of her iconic status in Regency society as an acclaimed painter, musician and hostess, this biography shows how Cosway manipulated her public image, as well as falling victim to it.

Maria’s life began dramatically when, in her home city of Florence—then a key destination on the Grand Tour—many of her infant brothers and sisters were murdered by a wet nurse. A precocious artist and musician, at the age of 18, Maria Hadfield—beautiful, clever and talented—arrived in London. Within two years she had been placed by her mother in an arranged marriage to the fashionable artist and notorious dandy, Richard Cosway. Portrait miniaturist to the extravagant young Prince of Wales (later the Prince Regent and George IV), arbiter of taste and fashion, as well as dabbler in the occult, he was energetic in promoting his dazzling wife as an Anglo-Italian successor to Angelica Kauffman, and also encouraged her career as an “all-accomplished” musician and artist. She made her name in 1782 with a spectacular full-length portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire as Cynthia from Spenser’s “Faerie Queene”, and exhibited her ambitious history paintings at the Royal Academy over the next two decades (such as The Death of Miss Gardiner in 1789, which was influenced by the compositions of Jacques-Louis David). During the years of outstanding social and artistic success in London and Paris, the Cosways’ salon and concerts in Pall Mall became a focus of the bon ton of Regency society.

Meanwhile, Maria Cosway was winning the hearts and minds of men of power and talent. They included her much older confidant, General Pasquale de Paoli, the celebrated Corsican patriot; the “baron” d’Hancarville, a charlatan but brilliant antiquarian; David, artist of the French Revolution and to Napoleon; and Sir John Soane, the Regency architect of genius. Her affair in Paris with Thomas Jefferson—then American ambassador to France—has since become known as one of the most famous love stories of the 18th century. In 1790 Maria gave birth to her only child, Louisa Paolina Angelica. Suffering severe post-natal depression, she abandoned her daughter and husband for Italy, where she remained for four years, much of it secluded in a Genoese convent. Two years after Maria returned to London, she suffered the devastating loss of her daughter who died from a fever.

Maria increasingly turned to her Catholic faith, producing religious paintings and becoming involved in girls’ education. She left London for Paris in 1801, where during a two-year stay, her remarkably confessional diary details a close involvement with the cultural and political scene there, especially with the ruling Bonaparte family. In particular, her intimate friendship with Cardinal Fesch—Napoleon’s uncle—led to him becoming her protector. With Fesch’s support she initially established a girls’ school in Lyon, and then after 1812 in the Lombard town of Lodi under the patronage of Francesco Melzi, Duke of Lodi and Napoleon’s Governor of Northern Italy. She returned to London for five years to nurse her ailing and increasingly eccentric husband, with whom she was reconciled before his death in 1821. From the proceeds of arranging auctions of her husband’s rich art collections, Maria endowed her prestigious girls’ school in Lodi as the Collegio delle Dame Inglesi. She remained there for the rest of her life, finally reaching fulfilment in her faith and as a reforming educationalist. She was made a Baroness of the Austrian Empire in 1835, three years before her death, when she was honoured with many tributes and memorials.

Ms Burnell’s new biography builds on much new and hard-won research that has been published on Maria Cosway over the last two decades, including the partial publication and analysis in 1989 and 1998 of her diaries and correspondence preserved in Lodi; the relationship with her husband as revealed in the exhibition held in the national portrait galleries in Edinburgh and London during 1995; and her correspondence with her mentor General Paoli, which was published by the Voltaire Foundation in 2003. Ms Burnell has successfully added to our knowledge of Maria Cosway’s life by research in the archives of Florence, Paris and Lyon. However, it may be said that the emphasis on Thomas Jefferson’s famous and well-documented infatuation with Maria during her visit to Paris in 1786 and 1787 slightly unbalances the book, and the interludes with imagined conversations between Maria and her many male admirers, while an ambitious device, are not entirely successful, especially when the correspondence that survives is often so remarkable in terms of information and feeling. However, the new account of her life paves the way for future re-assessments of Maria Cosway as an artist, whose compositions were so admired by among others, Jacques-Louis David.

Stephen Lloyd

Senior Curator, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, and co-curator with Kim Sloan of “The Intimate Portrait: drawings, miniatures and pastels from Ramsay to Lawrence”, Scottish National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh (25 October-1 February 2009); The British Museum, London (5 March-31 May 2009).

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