Art historians have debated for many decades over the rumor that in 1784, the artist Maria Cosway had an affair with Thomas Jefferson. It is said that Maria's Husband Richard was bisexual and did not care if his Maria would sleep with other men. In Fawn Brodie's book titled "Thomas Jefferson, an Intimate History" Fawn says this about Maria:

"Paris in the 1780's was licentious to a degree unheard of in America. Moreover, in fashionable French circles Jefferson was the apple of every woman's eye, especially the beautiful and talented Maria Cosway, whose foppish English husband was uninterested in fulfilling her need for love.

Maria was, however, a devout Catholic, and unwilling to commit adultery, or divorce, and even if her husband were to turn up deceased, Maria and Tom couldn't marry because of Jefferson's vow. Their hormonal suffering is evident in their letters, and pretty well portrayed in the movie "Jefferson in Paris," starring Nick Nolte."

Maria (Hadfield) Cosway was born in Florence, Italy in 1759. Maria's parents owned three inns in Florence that were very popular with the English who would be visitors taking the Grand Tour. Maria's brother George Hadfield was a famous architect who is best known for designing the Arlington House in Virginia.

As a young girl Maria showed great artistic skills and was very talented. When Maria was nineteen, she was elected into the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence. Maria studied under such art instructors as Violante Cerroti and Johan Zoffany. From 1773 to 1778, Maria copied paintings at the Uffizi gallery; Maria was also elected to the Florentine Accademia del Disegno in 1778.

After the death of her father in December 1778, Maria moved to England after her friend Angelica Kauffmann invited her. Maria was introduced into society by Angelica. Maria met Richard Cosway at a society function, and in 1781 she and Richard got married, they would have one daughter.

Maria is said to have broken many hearts in her lifetime. One such heart belonged to Thomas Jefferson, whom she met in 1786 in Paris. Maria inspired Thomas Jefferson to write what has become known as the "head and heart" letter. In the "head to heart" letter Thomas Jefferson wrote:

"Having performed the last sad office of handing you into your carriage, at the pavilion de St. Denis, and seen the wheels get actually into motion, I turned on my heel and walked, more dead than alive, to the opposite door, where my own was awaiting me."

Maria's many affairs were well known, one of Maria's lesser known affairs was with Pasquale Paoli, who was a Corsican general and patriot.

Maria had two artists who influenced her works; they were Angelica Kauffman and Henry Fuseli. Maria would exhibit many of her works at the Royal Academy in London between 1781 and 1801. She would exhibit a few portraits but mainly displayed history paintings. Maria took her subjects from such literary sources as:

Two of Maria's most beautiful portraits are the full-length portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire Georgiana, which was engraved by Valentine Green in 1783, and the more striking self-portrait which showed Maria with her with arms crossed; Green engraved the self-portrait in 1787.

During the 1780s Maria would host many high society musical events in London. Maria had many trips to Paris between 1786 and 1787; this is where her supposed love affair with Thomas Jefferson took place.

Maria traveled throughout Italy from 1790 to 1794. In 1795, she returned to London to work on a series of works published by Rudolph Ackermann, which included her etchings of her husband Richard drawings and her original designs illustrating two moral tales for women, as well as many of her successful illustrations made to go with a poem by Mary Robinson

Maria moved to Paris in 1801, where she would make copies and hand shaded etchings of works by the Old Masters in the Louvre. Maria had 3 of these works published in 1802. In 1803, Maria would open a school for girls with the assistance of Archbishop Joseph Fesch. The school had to close in 1811.

Marie moved to Italy in 1812 after her husband Richard died. She sold many paintings from his art collection to pay for the move. Italy is where she would open another school for girls. Maria acquired a convent at Lodi, it was quite successful. Maria was rewarded for her generosity in 1834, by the Emperor. He made Maria a Baroness of the Austrian Empire and gave her a grant of arms.

Maria devoted most of her time to her school for girls. She is  buried in the cemetery at the neighboring church. The city erected a bust in Maria's memory, and the school which she founded received a substantial endowment, and is still an operating institution for the education of girls. The dining room of the school has a replica of the monument in memory of Maria's husband Richard. The school library contains many of her husband's works together with books and furniture which had belonged to Richard and Maria, and papers relating to events that happened in their lives.

Maria was a devout Catholic and, after the death of her daughter, Maria chose to retire to a secluded life in the school for girls that she founded in England. She continued to paint until she died in 1838, after a long controversial life.

Thomas Jefferson had an etching made of Maria's self-portrait, it is truly magnificent. You can view it at


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