Shining a Light on Maria Hadfield Cosway Back

Over the span of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the artist, composer, musician, collector and educator Maria Hadfield Cosway (1760-1838) built an impressive network of international relations and friendships with political, cultural and artistic persons. Until recently, however, the life and work of Maria Cosway was often marginalized by her husband’s shining career, the highly successful British portrait and miniature painter, Richard Cosway, R.A, Painter to the Prince of Wales. In contrast, the exhibition Maria Hadfield Cosway organized by the Fondazione Maria Cosway in Lodi, Italy, refreshingly situates Maria in the spotlight where she belongs. The show is organized exclusively from items in the Foundazione’s  acclaimed permanent collections and on previous, ground breaking research by academics like Stephen Lloyd and Tino Gipponi, amongst others. It highlights important moments in this remarkable woman’s life living between Florence, London and Lodi. Curated by Monja Faraoni and Laura Facchin with Massimiliano Ferrario and Maria Cristina Loi, this jewel of a show runs at the Foundazione’s premises from 23 September to 27 November, 2022.

Maria Cosway, Self-Portrait with Straw Hat from Rubens, watercolour on paper, 108 x 88 mm, 1785, Foundazione Maria Cosway. Taken by the author with permission from the Maria Cosway Foundation.

The show stems from the President of the Maria Cosway Foundazione, Francesco Chiodaroli’s, idea to collaborate with students and instructors at the Liceo Artistico Callisto Piazza for the study of humanistic subjects and the Fondazione Luigi Clerici, dedicated to aiding young people in professional training. The students were involved in several aspects of preparing the exhibition, including choosing, researching and displaying content, while others assisted in designing the accompanying catalogue’s graphic layout. Students also designed and produced merchandise, such as velvet hand bags and ceramic tiles stamped with early works of art by Maria. Additionally, they designed wine labels for the Società Agricola Monteverdi that along with Assolombarda, Fondazione Banca Popolare di Lodi, sponsored the show. Students with autism at the Danelli Foundazione, of which Chiodaroli is Director, guided visitors through the show on the opening night. The exhibition is staged on the first floor of the recently renovated building where in 1812 Maria established her school for young girls. Today the building is home to the Foundazione and its archives. In recognition for her admirable pedagogical contributions, Cosway was bestowed the excellent title of Baroness in 1835. The building proved an apt venue as participation between the Foundazione and students resonates with Maria’s important role as educator and symbolizes the Foundazione’s new possibilities.


At the foyer, a large, straw hat, decorated with a big, white bow, floats over the staircase. Constructed by the school’s fashion students, it is a close replica of one Maria wore for a graphite and water colour, miniature self-portrait, which is on display in the first room. In the picture, the artist appears to have based herself on Rubens’ famous picture of his sister-in-law, La Chapeau de Paille, and the catalogue makes know that this small-scale study can be connected with three self-portraits she exhibited at the Royal Academy, London in 1783, 1785 and 1787.[1] The hat is a playful nod to Maria’s love for dress and the fashionable status she attained as a young woman.


In a small ante room leading from the foyer, students’ art works are exhibited. Inspired by the subject of Cosway, etchings and prints after Maria’s work are on display, while other students reimagined stylish gowns that combine period and modern elements. These dresses, along with elaborate eighteenth and nineteenth-century hairstyles, were captured in a series of photo shoots also on display here and included in a small section of the exhibition catalogue. 


The show provides a thorough account of Maria’s intense biography. Organized into eight sections and occupying two rooms and the chapel, the chronology of Maria Hadfield Cosway begins with the artist’s childhood and artistic formation.  She was born in Florence, Italy, to English parents who ran a number of popular inns in the city frequented by a Grand Tourist clientele, including artists, connoisseurs and members of the aristocracy. That Maria grew up in an international household was most likely formative for her because although she herself was never considered a ‘Grand Tourist’, the exhibition forefronts the fact that she lived and travelled with ease between European countries her entire life. Here we learn that already at a young age Maria displayed exceptional artistic and musical talents, and her parents—especially her father—supported her aspirations. Along with the aforementioned self-portrait, viewers are presented with exact copies Maria made from collections in the Uffizi gallery and Palazzo Pitti, including an impressive copy of Raffaello’s Madonna and Child (Madonna Cowper), and Pieter Paul Rubens’ The Four Philosophers. The accompanying preparatory drawing reveals Maria’s precise hand, and she clearly mastered the subtle language of gesture, colour, composition and brush technique. After receiving painting lessons from German painter Johann Zoffany, who was staying in Florence at the time, she gained a diploma at the prestigious Vasariana Academy of Designo of Florence on 27 September, 1778. At the suggestion of painter Joseph Wright of Derby who visited Florence a few days, Maria travelled with her mother to Rome to establish important artistic networks, many that remained in place throughout her life. On display is a self-portrait of Prince Hoare who she met in Rome. She befriended the sculptor Thomas Banks, and the painter Henry Fuseli, who’s style for painting supernatural subjects she particularly admired.

Recently restored Music Hall, with Gabriele Rottini’s La Baronessa Maria Cosway tra le sue alunne e tre Dame Inglese, Oil on canvas, 147 x 205 cm. Foundazione Maria Cosway, 1836-1837. Taken by author with permission from the Maria Cosway Foundation.

In addition to these paintings, another display case contains smaller works on paper of her and Richard, produced by Richard. After a little over a year in Rome, Maria’s father died and her mother decided to sell the inns in Florence and move the family to London; soon thereafter, she met Richard. Most likely the marriage was arranged as he was much older than her, and her mother was keen on making an advantageous marriage for her beautiful and talented eldest daughter that would also help secure the rest of the family and pay off some debts they accumulated since their arrival to London. They were married in the fashionable St. George’s Church in Hanover Square in 1781. The couple spent their lives together dedicated to artistic practice and travelled to Flanders and Paris to collect and paint. Both sitters are shown wearing refined dress attesting to their elegant lifestyle; feathers, high collars, cuffs and heavy jewels add a sense of romantic, historical detail to the picture. One pen and ink drawing on brown paper of Maria, a companion portrait to one of Richard, also by Richard, presents the couple’s strategic self-fashioning. She is surrounded with a rich assemblage of material culture that makes known Maria’s artistic and musical talents: paint pallet and brushes, an organ, music books, a sculpture of Minerva and a bust of Leonardo da Vinci. Her dress is highly ornate and detailed, so much so that she practically blends into the sumptuously decorated interiors. Another more intimate preparatory drawing depicts the view from a window in the couple’s home at Schomberg House, Pall Mall of the procession in the Park of his Majesty going to Parliament House while Maria watches from the window.


Of particular interest in the second room is the theme of Women, Friends and Artists. It tells us about women and their professional artistic careers in London at that time. We are presented with several of Maria’s well-known peers: Angelica Kauffman, Anne Seymour Damer and Mary Moser. In one of the display cases are two pencil drawings of the sculptress Damer, who secured recognition by exhibiting regularly at the Royal Academy. These images convey Damer’s strong, non-conformist attitude. Dressed in her work coat, one of the sketches captures her in the act of sculpting marble, an artistic pursuit usually considered ‘manly’ because of the labour intensity entailed in carving, chipping and polishing the hard stone. Next to these, is a pen and ink sketch of Maria, elegantly dressed, enveloped in hat, puffs and frills. She is reading while seated next to a harp, a fashionable instrument for women to play at that time, and Maria would often perform music at the mixed-company salons taking place at their home. While Maria exhibited regularly at the highly promotional Royal Academy, Richard forbade her to practice professionally. This must have been frustrating for a determined, talented woman who had acquired training and graduated from one of the most prestigious art schools in Europe. The juxtaposition of these two images in the case challenges ideas of gender, as it emphasizes Damer’s seemingly masculine traits, while Maria’s is a flamboyant, yet conventional, feminine gendered identity that is usually considered more in line with the times.


Also in this case is a pencil sketch of a woman playing a guitar believed to be the history and mythological painter Angelica Kauffman, who like Richard, was one of the thirty six founding members of London’s Royal Academy. Angelica became close friends with Maria and showed her support to the young artist by introducing her to London’s art world when she first arrived from Italy. Maria honoured her friend by naming her only child Louisa Poala Angelica. Here Angelica is portrayed in a seemingly intimate moment that shows off her multiple talents. Also in this case, is a charming miniature of baby Prince Adam Terzy Czartorisky by Maria’s sister Carlotta Hadfield Combe. He is represented here as baby Bacchus, playfully holding a cluster of grapes and nestled between two felines. The exhibition catalogue tells us that on the picture’s reverse, is written in pen, ‘dipinto dalla sorella di Cosway’[2] Clearly talented, Carlotta was most likely considered an ‘amateur’ artist as she did not exhibit in public venues, and it was Maria, not Carlotta, who was formally acknowledged on the back of the picture. Interestingly, all the pictures here, besides Carlotta’s miniature, were painted by Richard, as no pictures by Maria exist of these women in the Foundation’s archive.[3] Last in this section, displayed on an easel, is a large, floral, still life painting by Royal Academician Mary Moser who was well-known for this genre. Like Kauffman and Richard, Moser was a professional artist and founding member of the Royal Academy. She was also Richard’s lover at one time; nonetheless, Maria and Mary seem to have been amicable. In her will, Moser gifted Maria twenty guineas for the purchase of a ring and offered Richard the choice of three paintings; the catalogue tells us that this is most likely one of those paintings.[4] Like Maria, Moser continued painting after she married Captain Hugh Lloyd in 1793, but from then on, she promoted herself as ‘amateur’. This display opens a dialogue that encourages us to think about women’s professionalization and aspirations as art creators. It demonstrates that women were both able and successful and places Maria amongst the most important women artists of London during that time.


The final part of the show is staged in the beautiful 19th century Chapel, decorated by Pietro Ferrabini. Packed with a rich array of visual and material objects, we learn more about the later phase of Maria’s life and her active participation in French and Italian cultures. The space is divided into five sections: The Artistic Sensibilities of Maria Cosway, Maria Cosway in Venice, Maria Cosway in Paris and the Project of the Louvre Gallery, Maria Cosway and Thomas Jefferson, and finally Maria Cosway at Lodi. These sections work to anchor Maria’s intense life within broader, often overlapping, historical narratives.


Displayed on an easel is a playful portrait of their daughter Louisa Paola Angelica, painted by Richard. After giving birth in 1790, Maria seems to have suffered a serious case of post-partum depression that greatly affected her health. Shortly thereafter, her doctor and Richard agree she travel abroad. She returns to Italy with her brother and a maid and later stops in France, before returning to London in 1794. The picture shows Louisa caught in a moment of excitement, both arms are stretched up, one behind a curtain. She wears a coral necklace believed to protect children from sickness and evil spirits. On her lips is a slight yet welcoming smile. It seems Richard painted this tender picture of their daughter while Maria was away and may have gifted it to her when she returned to London. Only two years later Louisa became sick with fever and died. From that point on, Maria and Richard’s relationship grew even more strained.


In the chapel are many exceptional works on paper by Maria. The copies she produced during her travels, such as Titian’s Ascension of the Virgin and Presentation of the Child Mary at the Temple are positioned alongside Tintorello’s The Last Supper and The Annunciation. All were painted on the spot in Venice and further demonstrate her attraction to religious painting genres. Along with artists like Fuseli and Blake, Maria seems to have anticipated a particular Romaniticism style; her studies of female subjects shown here are composed of slightly exaggerated or dramatic figures and strong contrasting light. These aim to trigger strong religious, intellectual and emotional feelings in the viewer. This is particularly evident in her Woman Honoring a Tomb and the preparatory painting she made for her work in the catholic chapel at Croxdale Hall entitled the Deposition of the Cross of which the aforementioned Valentine Green also produced an engraving. Works in this room further confirm the fact that Maria consistently chose subjects that break with the stereotype that women only painted still life genres.


During her sojourn in Venice from fall of 1790 to spring of 1791, Maria befriends the writer Isabella Teotochi Albizzi and regularly attends her salons where she meets important cultural persons like Vincenzo Monte, Ugo Foscolo, Antonio Canova and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. She also re-established connections with the future Director of the Louvre, Ritrovato Dominique-Vivant Denon. She visited Paris on several occasions and the textual material on display makes known Maria’s engagement with Revolutionary events, artistic and educational projects and friendships with important French figures, such as Jacques-Louise David and members of the Bonaparte family. It was her meeting with Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal-Archbishop of Lyons, Cardinal Fesch, who reignited her desire to found a college for young girls in Europe and offered her to run his school in Lyons. Maria also kept a silhouette of Thomas Jefferson, with whom she kept a life-long correspondence and sent him a book of her songs and duets. Importantly, their romantic relationship is acknowledged, but it was in no way the main focus of the room; Maria is recognized as an extraordinary woman in her own right and the curators looked beyond identifying her as the future United States President’s ’femme’ fatal’ as some authors have named her. After Richard died, Maria auctioned off the bulk of their collections. With the funds raised, Maria forged a new path for herself and used the money toward the school (now the Foundazione) she established in Lodi; yet another good reason for the curators to collaborate with students in that space.


The final section presents Maria as educator. Familiar with her work in Lyons, Melzi, the Duke of Lodi expressed his desire to open a school for girls in Italy, so he bought a convent in Lodi and invited her to found her college of the Beata Vergine delle Grazie (later named Beate Vergine Maria Institute) for the purpose of educating girls between the ages of 6 to 12 years old in the region of Lombardy. The school became well known and many social elites had their daughters educated there. The scholastic curriculum she advocated included artistic and scientific studies along with music and languages. Mario Riberi notes in the accompanying exhibition catalogue that the period of the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars saw radical implementation of new ideas regarding pedagogical ideologies of ‘universal scholasticism’, but these new methodologies often met with much resistance for their perceived extremism.[5]  Maria advocated the idea of a ‘Stato pedagogo’ invested in upholding the nation, but she also recognized that such a curriculum was highly selective. Drawing on theories of J.J. Rousseau and Pestalozzi, her students were guided towards their natural inclinations but above all encouraged to become good mothers. On view are various educational albums she collected and the education system she wrote herself for the Cosway college at Lodi. In another case are the 8 page letter with coat of arms, seal and title of Baroness that was bestowed on Maria by the Austrian Emperor Francesco I. Last is a large copy of an oil painting presenting an elderly Maria surrounded by students and three sisters of the Order of English Ladies (original located in the Foundation’s music hall).  Both the wall text and the catalogue inform us that they are listening to Vittoria Manzoni, daughter of the famous Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni who stands in front of Maria and recites from a book. Maria had befriended Vittoria’s mother while in Paris in 1802. This friendship was further celebrated for the show by the Italian social cooperative Codogno, as they produced cherry jams, following one of Vittoria’s mother’s recipes, which were also for sale in the Foundazione’s foyer. The picture was painted by the Brescian artist Gabriele Rottini in 1836-1837. The presence of the sisters of the Order in the picture celebrates the moment the school was established under the religious order of the English Ladies in 1830.  This section calls upon viewers to consider a symbolic world of learning as it adds another layer of meaning to the building that enhances the show’s relevancy.


Covering two small rooms and the chapel, the show is rich in biography, and it brings together an impressive array of material and visual culture that shines light on Maria’s many talents. The substantial, accompanying exhibition catalogue contains precise explanations of the works on show, and it includes numerous essays by Italian, British and American scholars, written in Italian and English language. Reading through the catalogue, it seems incredible that this fascinating woman had been so neglected, but contributing to this dilemma is that so few of her pictures survive and many of them are damaged. On the other hand, her massive collection of books forms the Foundazione’s library. Maria’s decision to keep these items for herself suggests they held personal significance to her, but she also recognized the value in building such a varied archive. The art works she kept and transported to Italy disseminated important information about British artists that may have been of interest to Italian artists. Maria Hadfield Cosway is a ground breaking exhibition; it is the first ever show in Italy to focus exclusively on the artist and her fascinating life. Engaging and interesting, the show rightfully places Maria Hadfield Cosway at the center of a thriving artistic and cultural network, and presents a woman who successfully maneuvered herself professionally and socially, in spite of the fixed gender constraints during that time.





[1] Stephen Lloyd, ‘Self-Portrait with straw hat from Rubens’ in Maria Hadfield Cosway (Lodi: Liceo Artistico, 2022), 217.

[2] Monja Faraoni, ‘Il principe Czartorisky tra due fiere’ in Maria Hadfield Cosway (Lodi: Liceo Artistico, 2022), 265-267

[3] Thank you to Monja Faraoni for confirming this information to me.

[4] Monja Faraoni, ‘Natura morta di fiori’ in Maria Hadfield Cosway (Lodi: Liceo Artistico, 2022), 269.

[5] Mario Riberi, ‘L’educazione in età napoleonica’ in Maria Hadfield Cosway (Lodi: Liceo Artistico, 2022), 21-31.