Maria Luisa Caterina Cosway (17601838)



  • Painter
  • Performer
  • Composer


  • Maria Luisa Caterina Cosway
  • Maria Hadfield

Paul F. Rice, Memorial University of Newfoundland
November 2023

Maria Hadfield was the daughter of Charles (1717?–1776) and Isabella (d. 1809) Hadfield. Knowledge of her early life is found in a letter she sent to Sir William Cosway (dated May 24, 1830)[1] where she states that her father’s family were wealthy manufacturers from Manchester; other evidence points to the father’s family having Irish origins. Charles Hadfield learned of the need for suitable Italian accommodation for English tourists, and travelled to Florence where he established himself as a successful hotelier. Maria writes that she was born on the banks of the Arno River, a significant feature in Florence. Tragedy marked the Hadfield family when a deranged servant killed all of Maria’s older siblings. The family continued to grow, however, and several more children were born to Maria’s parents.

Maria was raised Catholic (like her father) and trained in a Florentine convent school. Her wish to become a Nun was opposed by her Protestant mother. Maria demonstrated early talents for music and drawing, and she was encouraged by local and visiting artists to copy the paintings of the great masters at the Uffizi Gallery and elsewhere. Maria was elected to the Florentine Academia del Disegno in 1778, the youngest person to achieve the honour. Her interest in the visual arts took her to Rome and Naples, all-the-while continuing her musical studies. James Northcote (1746–1831) became acquainted with Maria in Naples in 1779 and became a lifelong friend. He recorded that she was already composing and that she played the harpsichord and sang admirably.

Following the death of Charles Hadfield, his widow was unable to continue his business and took her family to London in 1779. There, Mrs. Hadfield attempted to capitalize on Maria’s artistic abilities, something made difficult because of Maria’s imperfect command of English and her strong accent. As Dianne Boucher notes, the artist Angelica Kauffmann (1741−1807) was helpful in getting Maria’s career established: “With Kauffman’s encouragement, Maria was exhibiting at the Royal Academy by 1781, where her paintings were critically well received” (“Maria Cosway (1760–1838): A commentator on modern life,” British Art Journal, 8.3 (2017/18), 80). Maria’s most significant patron was Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, painted by the artist in 1782 as the goddess Cynthia. The original became well known through a mezzotint made by Valentine Green, published in 1783.


After Maria Cosway: Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire as Cynthia; print made by Valentine Green, 1783. Art Institute of Chicago, Amanda S. Johnson and Marion J. Livingston Endowment Fund, 2022.160. Public Domain.


Isabella Hadfield’s savings were soon depleted and Maria, as the oldest child, was forced into marriage in 1781 with the wealthy artist Richard Cosway (1742−1842). Maria writes: “I became acquainted with Mr. Cosway his offer was accepted, my Mothers wishes gratified and I married tho’ under age.” James Northcote puts the matter rather more bluntly: “from necessity married Cosway the miniature painter, who at that time adored her, though she always despised him” (qtd. by Stephen Gwynn, Memorials of an Eighteenth-Century Painter, 150). Although Maria’s letters indicate that she developed a regard for Cosway, there is little doubt that the marriage had been unwanted and resulted in a complex relationship between a serial philanderer and a strong-willed woman who felt constrained by her wedding vows. Richard Cosway was a vain, flamboyant member of the macaroni set in London, interested in the occult, and a libertine. Likely fearing competition, he stipulated that Maria must not pursue a professional career as an artist, but remain an amateur. She did not give up her art completely, however, and Diane Boucher notes that, “Maria managed to exhibit more than 30 works at the Royal Academy between 1780−1801” (“Maria Cosway (1760–1838): A commentator on modern life,” 80).

On January 1, 1782, a caricature was published of a tiny Richard Cosway hiding under his wife’s skirts. Behind them is a portrait of a small man climbing up a ladder to reach the head of a tall woman, with the following text from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (Act 2, scene 1):

Lowliness is young ambition’s ladder,
Whereto the climber-upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend

Cosway, the miniaturist, is portrayed in miniature himself, while his new wife speaks of her unhappiness. The accusation of social climbing was to follow the couple for the rest of the decade.


A Smuggling Machine or a Convenient Cos(au)way for a Man in Miniature,” Published by: Hannah Humphrey, January 1, 1782. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C., PC 1-6102. Public Domain.


Denied a career as a professional artist, Maria transformed herself into a society hostess to please her husband. She presented glittering, twice-weekly concerts at their fashionable home Schomberg House in Pall Mall. These evenings were high-profile events, attracting George, Prince of Wales (1762−1830), and Charles Fox (1749−1806), leader of the Whig party. Both men were amongst Richard Cosway’s most important patrons. Leading soloists of the day performed and Maria sang with stars of the Italian opera, including the castrati Giovanni Rubinelli (1753−1829) and Giusto Ferdinando Tenducci (c. 1735−90). She often performed her own compositions, several of which were published.[2] Social pretention of this order invited consequences, and salacious gossip circulated about her relationship with the Prince of Wales.[3] A derogatory engraving of Maria was published by Elizabeth Jackson on April 29, 1786, which depicted Maria in a lunatic asylum.[4] Her reaction to such slanders can be judged from a 1787 self-portrait. With arms crossed and staring directly at the viewer, the pose is defiant.


Maria Cosway: self portrait. Print made from the original by Valentine Green, 1787. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund, B1970.3.495. Public Domain.


Maria accompanied her husband to Paris in 1786 where he had been commissioned to paint portraits of the Orléans and Polignac families. There, she met Thomas Jefferson (1743−1826), then American minister to France. The recently widowed Jefferson became smitten by Maria and she appears to have been attracted to him. For six weeks, the two were inseparable but, when Richard Cosway realized that the relationship was serious, he insisted that he and Maria leave immediately. This did not stop Jefferson and Maria from communicating in writing. Jefferson kept copies of his outgoing correspondence and all letters received, and the correspondence continued until shortly before Jefferson’s death.[5] There is little doubt about Jefferson’s deep feelings for Maria. As a married, Catholic woman, however, her position was far more equivocal.

The return to London initiated significant changes in Maria’s life. She befriended Luigi Marchesi (1754−1829), the new primo uomo [castrato] singer at the King’s Theatre. He was talented and judged to be handsome. Salacious gossip quickly followed. Beginning in January 1789, the Morning Post and the Morning Herald (both scandal sheets) printed innuendo about Marchesi and Maria. The Morning Herald (February 26, 1789) reported that “vile calumnies” had reached Richard Cosway who, in turn, had barred Marchesi from his house. Upon reflection, it was now reported that Cosway had changed his mind and peace was thus restored. As Gerald Barnett observes, the report was ungracious when it had been the newspapers which had invented the “vile calumnies.”

Maria fell pregnant in 1789 and gave birth to a daughter Louisa Paolina on May 4, 1790. A difficult pregnancy and birth was followed by pleurisy and possibly postpartum depression. It was decided that Maria should travel to Italy for her health in the company of her brother George, Mrs. Elizabeth Madison and Lady Catherine Wright (1732−1802). Richard Cosway provided them with a new coach. The baby was left behind in the care of Mrs. Hadfield and nurses. The company went by way of Paris, where Maria remained for some time with Mrs. Madison to regain enough strength to continue on to Venice. Their departure from London had coincided with that of Marchesi, leading to rumours that two had eloped. Horace Walpole, who often attended Maria’s concerts, wrote to Mary Berry with amazement on June 8, 1791: “surely it is odd to drop a child and her husband and her country all in a breath.” Once in Venice, Maria discovered Marchesi singing at the opera and the two re-established their friendship. Carol Burnell writes that this was time of deep personal conflict for Maria. She may have spent much of 1791−92 in the company of Marchesi but, on May 4, 1793, she entered the convent of Santa Brigida in Genoa as a retired lady. Although she thus gained a measure of respectability, her reputation with the conservative elements in Britain was in tatters. On April 3, 1794, Hester Thrale [Piozzi] wrote that Cosway “had run madding all over Europe after a Castrato,” claiming that her “Faith is not influenced by her Actions I suppose; She was well persuaded of heavenly Truth, altho’ a Prey to almost infernal Passions: ―or Appetites strangely depraved” (Thraliana, 1942. 2: 875). Maria did not return to London until November 1794. Her joy in knowing her daughter was short lived because the child died in 1796. Thereafter, the Cosways increasingly led separate lives.

Maria turned her attention to social criticism, especially the treatment of women. Her beliefs became aligned with the thinking of Mary Darby Robinson (1757−1800) and Mary Wollstonecraft (1759−97), both outspoken champions of women’s rights. Two series of Cosway’s drawings, sold as engravings for a wider distribution, provide contrasting views of women in society. The first, The Progress of Female Virtue (published in London in 1800) displays middleclass mothers providing important influences on the development of their children’s character and soul. The second, The Progress of Female Dissipation (published in London in 1803) shows the evils of fashionable excess on mothers who either spoil their children, or totally ignore them.


After Maria Cosway, Progress of Female Dissipation, plate 8. Yale University Art Gallery 1980.35.2a-i. Public Domain.


Shortly before Mary Robinson’s death, she and Cosway worked on an illustrated poem called “The Winter Day”[6] which shows the disparities within British society. On the opening page, Robinson writes that “the intension of the designs is to contrast the accumulated evils of poverty with the ostentatious enjoyment of opulence, thus exhibiting a picture of the state of society as it is.” The final plate displays complete despair, “where Hope, exhausted, silent dies.” As Anne K. Mellor observes, “Cosway endorses Robinson’s arguments in her Thoughts on the Condition of Women, and on the injustice of Mental Subordination (1799), that women must be educated, that they have the moral and intellectual capacity to choose a life of virtue, and, finally, that their Christian charity can actively alleviate the sufferings of the poor” (“British Romanticism, gender, and three women artists,” The Consumption of Culture: 1600−1800, 136). The Winter Day presents a dark vision of British society―male dominated and divided into rigid class structures that are injurious to women and children.

Maria decided to leave London in 1801 for Paris where she worked as an artist. By 1803, she was in Lyon where she remained for eight years involved in the education of girls. The ongoing war prevented her from travelling back to London; Maria returned to the land of her birth, making her home in Lodi where her educational activities found their fullest flowering. In 1812, Francesco Melzi, vice-president of the Cisalpine Republic and later Duke of Lodi, invited Maria to establish a convent and school for girls in Lodi. She insisted on a curriculum featuring the liberal arts, music and painting. She directed the Collegio delle Grazie there until her death in 1838. Such was her renown in the area of female education that she was created a baroness by Francis II of Austria in 1834. The Fondazione Maria Cosway in Lodi maintains her legacy and continues her educational goals. News of her husband’s illness in 1815 induced Maria to return to London for a few weeks to arrange for his care. A longer visit took place in 1817 (documented in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, April 7, 1819).[7] Richard Cosway died in 1821, at which time Maria oversaw the auction of his estate. Her last visit to England took place in 1829.

Maria Cosway’s contributions to the emerging feminist movement in Britain are less well known, perhaps, than those of Robinson or Wollstonecraft, likely because her medium was the visual arts. While she was criticized by conservative thinkers such as Hester Thrale, Cosway’s independent spirit attracted the attention of like-minded feminists. When Mary Robinson published her Thoughts on the Condition of Women, Maria Cosway was included in a list of thirty-nine influential women. Maria Cosway had had the strength to leave her life of a songbird in a gilded cage and chart her own destiny. In the process, she helped promote a more just place in society for women.

[1] Housed at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. National Art Library, MS Eng L.961-1953. It is reprinted in full by Gerald Barnett, Richard and Maria Cosway: A Biography (1995), 260―61.

[2] These include two sonatas for keyboard with violin accompaniment (London: Birchall and Andrews, 1785) and Songs and Duets Composed by Mrs. Cosway, publisher unnamed.

[3] This period is explored by Barnett, Richard and Maria Cosway, 71−75 and 110−28.

[4] Portrait of the Artist, Royal Collection Trust (Buckingham Palace) RCIN 653017. Cosway’s surname is altered to “Costive” (constipated”) and behind her are four paintings which she had exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts.

[5] Located in Jefferson MSS, special collections, Alderman Library, University of Virginia, Charlottesville, USA, and published in Jefferson in Love: the Love Letters between Thomas Jefferson & Maria Cosway, ed. John P. Kaminski, 1999. The letters are examined by Carol Burnell, Divided Affections: The Extraordinary Life of Maria Cosway: Celebrity Artist and Thomas Jefferson’s Impossible Love, 2007.

[6] Published in 1803 by Rudolph Ackermann’s Repository of Arts. The title is variously given as “The Winter Day,” “The Winter’s Day” or “The Wintry Day” in different editions.

[7] Cosway had had two paralytic strokes and was unable to work. Maria claimed to be happy “in [the] Self gratification of doing my duty, with no other consolation” (The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series, vol. 14 (2017), 208).