Maria Cosway

From Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia

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Engraving of Maria Cosway
Engraving of Maria Cosway
Maria Cosway (pronounced Mariah) (1760 – January 5, 1838) was an Anglo-Italian painter and musician who entered Jefferson’s social circle during his tenure as U.S. Minister to France. Her portrait hangs in the midst of the portraits and silhouettes on display in Monticello’s sitting room even though she was not a family member of Thomas Jefferson, but whose relationship with him elicited some of the most emotionally candid pieces of Jefferson’s voluminous correspondence. She is Maria Cosway ( Jefferson’s correspondence with Cosway reveals that he was capable of developing a romantic attachment following the death of his wife, Martha.

Maria Hadfield Cosway was born in Italy to English parents in 1760 (her architect brother, George Hadfield, would eventually design Arlington House in Virginia). As a young girl in Florence, she acquired a Roman Catholic convent education and demonstrated artistic talent. Moving to England after the death of her father, she married the celebrated miniature-painter and art connoisseur Richard Cosway in 1781. Thomas Jefferson met the Cosways in August 1786 at the Halle aux Bleds in Paris. During the next month, Mrs. Cosway made enough of an impression on him that her departure for London prompted Jefferson to write the letter that has become known as the "Head and Heart Letter," dated October 12, 13, 1786. The bulk of the letter is a dialogue between Jefferson’s calculating reason (for which he is well known) and his spontaneous emotions (for which he is lesser known).

Giving vent to the sadness in his heart after the departure of a woman whose attributes set her "a chapter apart," Jefferson refers to himself as "the most wretched of all earthly beings." Responding to his head’s admonishment for allowing himself to become emotionally attached to Cosway, his heart defends itself as the guardian of morality and relational solace, in that "assuredly nobody will care for him who cares for nobody." However, Jefferson’s head voices the perspective that "the art of life is the art of avoiding pain,"and that effective security against such pain "is to retire within ourselves, and to suffice for our own happiness."

Though her husband’s extramarital affairs were no secret, Cosway was still a married woman. This fact, combined with dwindling encounters and perhaps an unknown event, contributed to a cooling of Jefferson’s interest. Thomas Jefferson returned to America in 1789, and Maria Cosway, following the death of her husband, eventually moved to Lodi, Italy, and established a convent school for girls. Cosway and Jefferson corresponded intermittently over the years, with letters coming first from Cosway. At her home in Lodi, Cosway possessed a portrait of Jefferson by John Trumbull that is now at the White House, presented by the Italian government on the occasion of the 1976 Bicentennial. Thomas Jefferson’s engraving of Maria Cosway is by Francesco Bartolozzi, from a painting by Richard Cosway.

--Original author: Stephen DeMauri, Monticello Interpreter, December 2003; revised by Bryan Craig, February 2007.

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