Maria Cosway (Engraving)

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

Engraving of Maria Cosway
Engraving of Maria Cosway

Artist/Maker: Francesco Bartolozzi (1725-1815), engraver, after Richard Cosway (1742-1821) [1]

Created: 1785

Origin/Purchase: Paris

Materials: Stipple engraving

Dimensions: 21.3 x 13.8 (8 3/8 x 5 7/16 inches)

Location: South Square Room

Provenance: Thomas Jefferson; by descent to Virginia and Nicholas Trist; by descent to Gordon T. Burke; by gift to Thomas Jefferson Foundation in 1961.

Accession Number: 1963-19-2

Historical Notes: Maria Hadfield Cosway, an artist and musician, was part of Thomas Jefferson’s intimate circle of friends during his time in France. Jefferson described her as having qualities and accomplishments, belonging to her sex, which might form a chapter apart for her: such as music, modesty, beauty, and that softness of disposition which is the ornament of her sex and charm of ours."[2] Her knowledge of art and immense popularity in Paris and London no doubt contributed to Jefferson’s fondness for Mrs. Cosway’s companionship.

Mrs. Cosway and her husband, Richard, the celebrated English miniaturist, were introduced to Jefferson in Paris in the fall of 1786 by the American artist John Trumbull. According to Trumbull, the entourage "was occupied with the same industry in examining and reviewing whatever related to the arts...Mr. Jefferson joined our party almost daily."[3] Their excursions included sites such as the Halle aux Bleds, Versailles, the Louvre, Louis XIV’s retreat Marly, the Palais Royal, St. Germain, and the Column at the Désert de Retz. Jefferson was enchanted by Maria, and her departure from Paris in October 1786 compelled him to write the only existing love letter in the vast collection of his correspondence, "The dialogue between my Head and my Heart."[4]

Maria Hadfield was born of English parents in Italy, where she spent her youth and was schooled in drawing, music, and languages. She furthered her study of drawing in Florence and Rome, and was elected to the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence at nineteen. Maria met her mentor Angelica Kauffmann when she returned to England after her father’s death, and her circle of English friends included Francesco Bartolozzi, the engraver of this portrait.

Kauffmann introduced Maria to her future husband Richard Cosway, a member of the Royal Academy who was famous for his portrait miniatures of London’s aristocracy, including the royal family. Cosway was also a collector and connoisseur of Old Master paintings and drawings, prints, sculpture, and decorative art, and his duties as principal painter to the Prince of Wales including overseeing the royal collection. The Cosways frequently hosted members of London’s literary and artistic circles at fashionable salons, or musical evenings, at Schomberg House in Pall Mall, which was filled with their eclectic collection.[5]

Mrs. Cosway exhibited forty-two works at the Royal Academy between 1781 and 1801 but complained that, because her husband would not permit her to rank professionally, she lost the drawing skills from her early Italian training. Mrs. Cosway and Jefferson corresponded intermittently following their time in Paris until a year before Jefferson’s death. Her letters told of the birth and short life of her only child, Angelica, and her founding of a girl’s convent school in Lodi, Italy, where she died in 1838.


  1. This article is based on Stein, Worlds, 176-177.
  2. Jefferson to Maria Cosway, Paris, October 12, 1786, in PTJ, 10:446. Letterpress copy available online from the Library of Congress.
  3. John Trumbull, The Autobiography, Reminiscences and Letters of John Trumbull (New York: Wiley and Putnam, 1841), 118.
  4. Jefferson to Maria Cosway, Paris, October 12, 1786, in PTJ, 10:446. Letterpress copy available online from the Library of Congress.
  5. Daphne Foskett, Dictionary of British Miniature Painters (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1972), 1:220 and Stephen Lloyd, "Richard Cosway, R.A.: The Artist as Collector, Connoisseur and Virtuoso," Apollo 133 (June 1991):398-405.