Maria Cosway the Artist who Captured the Heart of Thomas Jefferson

Maria Cosway the Artist who Captured the Heart of Thomas Jefferson

 

Maria Hadfield Cosway, Repelling the Spirit of Melancholy

Maria Cosway was born Luisa Caterina Cecilia Hadfield was born on 11 June 1760 in Florence, Italy to Charles Hadfield, who was a native of Shrewsbury, England, and an Italian mother.

Her father was a successful innkeeper at Livorno, where he had become very wealthy. The Hadfields operated three inns in Tuscany, all frequented by British aristocrats taking the Grand Tour.

One of eight children Maria was born into a comfortable and happy family. Her life should have been a tranquil one. Unbeknown to the family tragedy would overtake them when four of the Hadfield children were killed by their  mentally ill nursemaid who claimed she was sending the children to heaven. Luckily she was caught and imprisoned before she could kill Maria.

While still in Florence, Maria Hadfield  studied art and painting under Violante Cerroti and Johann Zoffany.

The Florentine Violante Beatrice Siries (1709–1783) was an Italian painter of repute. She studied under Hyacinthe Rigaud and François Boucher in Paris from 1726. When she returned to Florence she married Giuseppe Cerroti. She was talented in several genres, but established herself as a famous portraitist She gained the patronage of the Medici family in 1731 and travelled to Rome and Vienna to paint various members of the family .Her most ambitious work was a fourteen figure family group of the emperor Charles VI, the father of the Austrian Empress Maria Theresa in 1735. Three of her self-portraits are preserved in the Uffizi Gallery.

Johann Zoffany (1733 -1810) was a German neoclassical painter, active mainly in England, Italy and India. His works appear in many prominent British collections such as the National Gallery, London, the Tate Gallery and in the Royal Collection, as well as institutions in Europe, India, the United States and Australia.  While Zoffany was painting The Tribuna of the Uffizi  in 1773 Hadfield copied Old Masters at the Uffizi Gallery. She continued copying for another five years and experimenting until 1778 when she was elected to the Academia del Disegno in Florence in 1778. She also went to Rome, where she studied art under Pompeo Batoni, Anton Raphael Mengs, Henry Fuseli, and Joseph Wright of Derby.

Self Portrait With Arms Folded

On 18 January 1781, Maria Hadfield married a fellow artist, the celebrated miniature portrait painter Richard Cosway, in what is thought to have been a marriage of convenience.

Richard was born in Tiverton, Devon, the son of a schoolmaster. He was initially educated at Blundell’s School but at the age of twelve he was allowed to travel to London to take lessons in painting. He won a prize from the Society of Artists in 1754 and by 1760 had established his own business. He exhibited his first works at the age of 20 in 1762 and was soon in demand.

Maria’s husband was one of the first group of associate members of the Royal Academy, elected in August 1770, and was elected a full member the following March, on the casting vote of the academy’s president, Sir Joshua Reynolds.  He was 20 years Maria’s senior, known as a libertine, and was repeatedly unfaithful to her.

Richard Cosway was “commonly described as resembling a monkey.” Her Italian manners were so foreign that her husband kept Maria secluded until she fully mastered the English language. Cosway also forbade his wife from painting, possibly out of fear of the gossip which surrounded women painters.

Her Self-Portrait with Arms Folded is seen as a response his command. The reprobate Cosway, realised his wife was his best financial asset and changed his mind.

More than 30 of her works were displayed at the Royal Academy of Art from 1781 until 1801. She soon enhanced her reputation as an artist, especially when her portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire in the character of Cynthia was exhibited.

Rather than being a social embarrassment she could claim the Hon. Mrs. Darner, the Countess of Aylesbury; Lady Cecilia Johnston; and the Marchioness of Townshend among her acquaintances.

In 1784, the Cosways moved into Schomberg House, Pall Mall, and developed a fashionable salon for London society. Richard was Principal Painter of the Prince of Wales, and Maria served as hostess to artists, members of royalty including the Prince, and politicians including Horace Walpole, Gouverneur Morris and James Boswell all attended the couples soirees. Maria who could speak several languages and had an international circle of friends.

The man who would be the American President Thomas Jefferson met the Cosways in August 1786 at the Halle aux Bleds in Paris, through the American artist John Trumbull. According to Trumbull, the President’s entourage “was occupied with the same industry in examining whatever relates to the arts …. Mr. Jefferson joined our party almost daily.” Their excursions included sites such as 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.

In ‘The dialogue between my Head and my Heart,” dated October 12th and 13th, 1786. Jefferson poured out the contents of both. 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). Jefferson describes his emotional state after she has left saying he is “the most wretched of all earthly beings” and his reason responds by admonishing him for his attachment. His heart defends itself saying that no one will care for him who cares for nobody.

Their marriage was never a happy one. Richard and Maria had one child together, Louisa Paolina Angelica. The couple eventually separated. Maria took herself back to the continent. On one occasion accompanied by Luigi Marchesi, a famous Italian castrato. Marchesi was reputed to have been the handsomest castrato of all time and was said to have been adored by the whole female population of Rome. Maria, was a beautiful woman who attracted the most gifted and handsome of men.

Whether she ever had a relationship with Jefferson remains a mystery. Though her husband’s extramarital affairs were no secret, Cosway was  a married woman and a devout Catholic when she met him so it is unlikely she entered into sexual relationship with him. The pair did however engage in correspondence.

After returning to America in 1789, Jefferson’s letters to her grew less frequent; partly due to the fact that he was increasingly preoccupied by his position as President George Washington’s secretary of state. She, however, continued to write to him. In her letters she vented her frustration at his growing aloofness. She clearly wanted a some passion to pass between them even if it was only in writing.  In his last letters, he spoke more of his scientific studies than of his love and desire for her. Finally he admitted that his love for her had been relegated to fond memories of when their relationship had been “pure.” Whatever that meant.

Their relationship was fictionalised in ‘Jefferson in Paris‘ a 1995 Franco-American historical drama film, directed by James Ivory, which had previously entitled Head and Heart. The screenplay, by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, is a semi-fictional account of Thomas Jefferson’s tenure as the Ambassador of the United States to France before his Presidency and of his alleged relationships with British artist Maria Cosway and his slave, Sally Hemings.

Maria Cosway eventually moved to Lodi, in Italy, where  she established a convent school for girls. Cosway and Jefferson wrote to one another occasionally, with letters coming first from Cosway.

At her home in Lodi, Cosway kept the portrait of Jefferson by John Trumbull that is now at the White House. It was presented to the United States by the Italian government on the occasion of the 1976 Bicentennial of the American Revolution.

Today, Cosway’s paintings and engravings are held by the British Museum, the New York Public Library and the British Library. Her work was included in recent exhibits at the National Portrait Gallery in London in 1995–96 and the Tate Britain in 2006.

Julia Herdman writes history ad historical fiction. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 and Kindle  Also available on:

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Amazon New Zealand

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See Also:

The History of the Love Letter

How to Write a Good Love Letter

Women, Crime and Punishment

Women, Crime and Punishment

Through most of history, men were thought of as the stronger sex. Men were and in many cases still are considered to be the more violent, more intelligent, more courageous, and the more determined sex.

Women were considered more placid and at worst governed by their unpredictable emotions. The ideal woman was expected to be passive, chaste, modest, compassionate, and pious.

Historians claim that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed a significant separation of the sexes in society. For example, at that time women and men to started to develop separate social lives. Women took tea at home, while men frequented the coffee shops in town. Women started to withdraw from the dining table after a meal to let the men smoke and talk politics while they concerned themselves with more domestic topics of conversation, played cards and drank tea. These social changes were in part due to increased wealth and to some extent, the growing influence of evangelical Christianity, which placed a high moral value on female domesticity, virtue, and religiosity. The women of the comfortably off were not expected to want for anything and if they did they were expected to keep their desires to themselves.

Rope, Model, Hands, Bondage, Freedom, Passion, FictionThose girls and women of the lower classes who broke society’s rules were treated with a mixture of cruelty and disdain. When it came to crime, women were accused of fewer, and different, crimes to men. At the Old Bailey women accounted for only 21% of the defendants tried between 1674 and 1913. This  figure masks a significant chronological change, however. While women accounted for around 40% of the defendants from the 1690s to the 1740s (and, highly unusually, over half the defendants in the first decade of the eighteenth century), over the course of the period this proportion declined significantly.

The shadow of Newgate Prison looms over the book Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe just as the real building must have loomed over surrounding London. Moll starts her life in that cold place, and she comes pretty close to ending it there, too. The prison is mentioned nearly forty times over the course of the book, more than any other place or even any other character’s name. Moll enters the prison as a thief and says looked around upon all the horrors of that dismal place.

‘I looked on myself as lost, and that I had nothing to think of but of going out of the world, and that with the utmost infamy: the hellish noise, the roaring, swearing, and clamour, the stench and nastiness, and all the dreadful crowd of afflicting things that I saw there, joined together to make the place seem an emblem of hell itself, and a kind of an entrance into it.'(Moll Flanders, Daniel Defoe.)

By the early nineteenth century only 22% of defendants were women, and as the twentieth century dawned that percentage had dropped to 9%. By the early twentieth century serious crime had become a mainly male problem and female deviance was viewed as a consequence of sexual immorality and mental defectiveness and was addressed through other agencies such as the asylum. Reasons for admission were various and included Egotism, Fever and Jealousy, Immoral Life, Novel Reading, Nymphomania, Shooting a daughter, Greediness and Self Abuse between 1864 and 1889  according to a poster from the Trans-Allegheny Lunatic Asylum in the US.Similar practices occurred in the UK.

During the 18th century women tended to be accused of certain kinds of theft – pickpocketing, shoplifting, theft from lodging houses, theft from their masters stores, and for receiving stolen goods. The more serious crimes that women were involved in included coining, kidnapping, keeping a brothel, and offences surrounding childbirth such as infanticide, concealing a birth or illegal abortions. Young women who fell prey to their employers and their employer’s sons often found themselves with an unwanted child and no job.Although prostitution itself was not tried at the Old Bailey, keeping a brothel was, and women account for about a third of those prosecuted for brothel keeping.

Of the 47 infanticide cases Naomi Clifford read researching her book, It is Women and the Gallows: Unfortunate Wretches, 13 ended in the acquittal of the manslaughter or murder charge but the conviction rate for the lesser crime of concealing a birth, for which the defendants were given prison sentences ranging from 14 days to 2 years more commonly brought in a guilty verdict. When convicted of infanticide a woman was usually hanged.

Appearing as a defendant at the Old Bailey must have been a significantly more intimidating experience for women than it was for men. All court personnel, from the judges and jury to lawyers and court officials were men except when a panel of all women was convened. These all female juries were  known as a ‘jury of matrons’ and were called to determine the validity of a convicted woman’s plea that she was pregnant. Pregnant women could not be hanged until they had delivered their unborn child.

There is some evidence that juries treated evidence presented by female witnesses more sceptically than that delivered by men. The testimony of women was more likely to be omitted from court proceedings. At the same time, other evidence suggests that juries may have been more reluctant to convict women because women were perceived to be less of a threat to society. The legal principle of the feme covert, which made women responsible for crimes committed in the presence of their husbands (they were presumed to be following their husbands’ commands) was not often applied. A married man was legally responsible for any debts his wife ran up with or without his knowledge.

The pattern of punishments for convicted women was significantly different from that of men, though when sentences for the same offence are compared, the differences are not so significant.

Before 1691, women convicted of the theft of goods worth more than 10 shillings could not receive the benefit of clergy unlike men and were sentenced to death. In practice, they were often acquitted, convicted on a reduced charge, or pardoned. Juries are usually reluctant to convict when they feel the punishment does not fit the crime.

Women convicted of treason or petty treason were sentenced to death by being burned at the stake until 1790 while men convicted of the same offences were hanged, drawn and quartered. It seems the authorities did not want to expose women to this humiliating fate of being undressed in public when they were being executed. Women sentenced to death who successfully pleaded that they were pregnant had their punishments respited and often remitted entirely. From 1848, reprieves granted to pregnant women were always permanent.

Following the suspension of transportation to America in 1776, a statute authorised judges to sentence male offenders otherwise liable to transportation to hard labour improving the navigation of the Thames (they were incarcerated on the hulks), while women, and those men unfit for working on the river, were to be imprisoned and put to hard labour. Only men could be sentenced to military or naval duty, and fewer women were selected for transportation when transportation to Australia began in 1787. The public whipping of women was abolished in 1817 (having been in decline since the 1770s), while the public flogging of men continued into the 1830s (and was not abolished until 1862).

The perception of women as passive and weak and the types of misdemeanours most frequently committed by them made them seem far less of a threat to society than the crimes committed by men. However, when a woman transgressed into the world of ‘male crime’, her punishment was likely to be more severe because as a woman she had not only committed a crime against society she had transgressed the ideal of womanhood and stepped outside her expected gender role.

Jail, Dublin, Hall, Old, History, Prison, Kilmainham

Source: https://www.oldbaileyonline.org/static/Gender.jsp

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction.

Sinclair is available of Amazon. Click here to get your copy.

Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street.  Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.

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The Princess Who Married The Hunchback Prince

The Princess Who Married The Hunchback Prince

Anne, The Princess Royal, married the hunchback William of Orange in 1734.

Princess Anne, or the Princess Royal as she was known, was the eldest daughter of George II. The title Princess Royal is a substantive title customarily (but not automatically) awarded by a British monarch to his or her eldest daughter. There have been seven Princesses Royals. The daughter of Queen Elizabeth II is currently holds the title. The title Princess Royal came into existence when Queen Henrietta Maria (1609–1669), daughter of Henry IV, King of France, and wife of King Charles I (1600–1649), wanted to imitate the way the eldest daughter of the King of France was styled “Madame Royale”. Thus Princess Mary (born 1631), the daughter of Henrietta Maria and Charles, became the first Princess Royal in 1642. Anne,the daughter of George II was the second Princess Royal.

Dysfunctional Family

Anne was born into what we would call an extremely dysfunctional family in May 1709. George II was the only son of the German prince George Louis, elector of Hanover (King George I of Great Britain from 1714 to 1727), and Sophia Dorothea of Celle. George, I had divorced and locked Sophia Dorothea in a castle in Celle for her adultery with a Swedish cavalry officer and taken their children, which include the boy who would become George II away from her. George II had, of course, never forgiven his father for his cruel treatment of his mother.

George II’s daughter Anne was a remarkable woman in many ways. She was criticised and praised in equal measure by contemporary chroniclers. Some said she was arrogant others that she was accomplished.

Early Life

Although Anne was an English princess, she was born at Herrenhausen Palace, Hanover. Her mother was Caroline of Ansbach. According to a recent biography of Caroline, The First Iron Lady: A Life of Caroline of Ansbach By Matthew Dennison, she was the real power behind George II. When she arrived in England in 1714, she became the first Princess of Wales since Prince Henry married Catherine of Aragon in 1509. She was blonde, buxom and above all, intelligent. Anne was one of the couple’s four children.

Her parents’ relationship with King George I was a troubled one. Her mother, Caroline of Ansbach, had been brought up in the Prussian Court where she had been treated as a surrogate daughter to the Prussian King and had been well educated.

When she married, she joined the Hanoverian Court, which was by comparison boorish. How much that experience influenced her opposition to George I in England we do not know, but the two did not get on. One wonders if Caroline suspected her father-in-law of having her mother-in-law’s lover killed? There were always rumours surrounding the disappearance of her Swedish lover.

Political differences between George I and his son the Prince of Wales led to factions in the court. The family dispute came to a head following the birth of George and Caroline’s second son, Prince George William in 1717. At the baby’s christening, the Prince of Wales publicly insulted the Duke of Newcastle one of his father’s allies. This so infuriated George I he banished his son and daughter-in-law from St James’s Palace, but he kept their children, including Anne under his guardianship at Leicester House.

The Prince and Princess of Wales were sent packing without their children. George, I kept them separated until 1720 when Anne’s brothers were returned to the care of her parents, but the girls remained the wards of the King.

Smallpox and Variolation

In that year, Anne’s body was ravaged by smallpox; she was 11 years old. The disease killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans a year during the closing years of the 18th century.

Smallpox had no respect for wealth or rank, anyone could catch it. Her own father had suffered from the disease in the first year of his marriage. Her personal near-death experience and the experience and her father led the family to support the introduction of variolation (an early type of immunisation against smallpox), which had been witnessed by Lady Mary Wortley Montague and Charles Maitland in Constantinople.

Variolation or inoculation was the method first used to immunise an individual against smallpox (Variola) with material taken from a patient or a recently variolated individual in the hope that a mild, but the protective infection would result. The procedure was most commonly carried out by inserting/rubbing powdered smallpox scabs or fluid from pustules into superficial scratches made in the skin. The patient would develop pustules identical to those caused by naturally occurring smallpox, usually producing a less severe disease than naturally acquired smallpox. Eventually, after about two to four weeks, these symptoms would subside, indicating successful recovery and immunity.

To test the process, Caroline ordered six prisoners who had been condemned to death to take part in the trial. They were offered the chance to undergo variolation instead of execution. They all agreed, and they all survived, as did the six orphan children who were also part of the test. (There were no medical ethics committees then). The tests convinced Caroline of variolation’s safety, and the Queen had her two younger daughters, Amelia and Caroline, inoculated. Royal patronage of the process was a boon to the doctors who were prescribing the process, and variolation began to spread amongst the upper classes.

On 22 June 1727, George I died making Anne’s father king. The following year, her elder brother, Frederick, who had been educated in Germany, was brought to England to join the court. Father and son had not seen one other in 14 years, and when they did, the fireworks began. Their relationship was even more tempestuous than the one between George I and George II especially after 1733 when Frederick purchased Carlton House and set up what George II considered to be a rival court.

Marriage

As a daughter of the future British King Anne’s marriage was always going to be a dynastic one. But, as a princess requiring a protestant marriage, her options were limited, most of the continent was ruled by Catholic princes. The government hit on the idea of a union with the rather lowly William, Prince of Orange-Nassau to sure up their anti-French alliance.

George II was not enamoured with the proposal, and Anne was concerned herself. The Dutch Prince William had a well-known physical deformity. Anne wanted to know more about his deformity before she agreed to see him, so she dispatched Lord Hervey, a close confidant, to report on its extent. Hervey said that William was no Adonis. William suffered from a pronounced curvature of the spine, which was probably the result of sclerosis, the same condition suffered by the English King Richard III. or Kyphosis the hunchback disease.

William’s Deformity

A normal thoracic spine extends from the 1st to the 12th vertebra and should have a slight kyphotic angle, ranging from 20° to 45°. When the “roundness” of the upper spine increases past 45° it is called kyphosis or “hyperkyphosis”. Scheuermann’s kyphosis is the most classic form of hyperkyphosis and is the result of wedged vertebrae that develop during adolescence. The cause is not currently known and the condition appears to be multifactorial and is seen more frequently in males than females. The condition must have made life very hard for William who apart from the problem with his spine was considered an attractive, educated, and accomplished Prince.

Having taken Hervey’s report into consideration and the inferiority of William’s territory, Anne decided she would take him. She was 25 years old, and it seems she did not want to end up an old maid surrounded by her warring relatives. When they married in 1734, her mother and sisters wept through the ceremony, and Lord Hervey described the marriage as more sacrifice than celebration.

As an outsider and British, Anne was not popular in the Netherlands. Her life must have been a lonely one because she did not get along with her mother-in-law, and her husband was frequently on campaign. France was an ever-present threat to William’s protestant country and his power base dependent on his ability to protect the states of the Dutch Republic from its enemies.

In these lonely years, Anne concentrated her efforts on literature and playing the harpsichord; she was an accomplished, artist, musician, and lifelong friend of her music teacher Handel.

Producing the required heir was problematic too. In 1736, she gave birth to a stillborn daughter and another in 1739. Her first live birth came in 1743 with the arrival of Princess Carolina of Orange-Nassau who was followed by another daughter, Princess Anna two years later. Her only son arrived in 1748 when she was 39 years old.

Regent

Anne became a widow in 1751 at the age of 40 and was appointed as Regent for her 3-year-old son, Prince William V. She was given all prerogatives usually given a hereditary Stadtholder of the Netherlands, except for the military duties of the office, which were entrusted to Duke Louis Ernest of Brunswick-Lüneburg. To say that she took to the role like a duck to water would not be an exaggeration. Finally free to exercise some power of the own, in true Hanoverian style, Anne used her wit and her determination to secure her personal power base and with it the dominance of her family and the Orange dynasty.

As Regent she was hard-working, but she remained unpopular. The commercial rivalry between the Dutch and the British East India Companies was part of the cause, her Dutch subjects were never entirely sure she was on their side because she pursued a foreign policy, that favoured the British-German alliance over alliance with the French. Another reason was the constitution of the United Provinces. But what made her most unpopular was that she seized the opportunity to centralise power in the office of the hereditary Stadtholder over the traditional rights of the Dutch states, particularly the State of Haarlem.

Ultimately, as a woman, she was reliant on the men around her, and it is fair to say that her husband and her son were fighting a losing battle against the tide of history at the end of the 18th century. Even Anne, with all her skills, could not realise the ambitions of the House of Orange on her own. She ruled the Netherlands for eight years. She died of dropsy (an accumulation of fluid in the body that leads to heart failure) in 1759. Her son was twelve and still too young to take the reins of power.

Anne was replaced as Regent by her mother-in-law, Marie Louise of Hesse-Kassel and when she died in 1765, Anne’s daughter, Carolina, was made Regent until her younger brother William V turned 18 in 1766.

Legacy

Anne was a remarkable woman in many ways. Her beauty was shredded by smallpox, but she took on the world and won. (I am sure she took the opportunity to show herself in the best light in her self-portrait above.) She accepted and made a success of her marriage, which on the face of it held little prospect for personal happiness. She was an intelligent if haughty woman who endured years of loneliness, the pain of giving birth to two stillborn children and then she was widowed. Anne exercised the role of Stadholder (chief executive of the Dutch Republic) as effectively as any man and the centralisation of power she created laid the foundations of the Dutch state and its royal family. Her grandson, William I became the first king of the Netherlands in 1815.

Picture: Self Portrait

Sources:

George II: King and Elector By Andrew C. Thompson, 2011, Yale University Press

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anne,_Princess_Royal_and_Princess_of_Orange

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 and on Kindle.

Sinclair is available of Amazon. Click here to get your copy.

Sinclair is set in the London Borough of Southward, the Yorkshire town of Beverley and in Paris and Edinburgh in the late 1780s. Strong female leads include the widow Charlotte Leadam and the farmer’s daughter Lucy Leadam. Sinclair is a story of love, loss and redemption. Prodigal son James Sinclair is transformed by his experience of being shipwrecked on the way to India to make his fortune. Obstacles to love and happiness include ambition, conflict with a God, temptation and betrayal. Remorse brings restitution and recovery. Sinclair is an extraordinary book. It will immerse you in the world of 18th century London where the rich and the poor are treated with kindness and compassion by this passionate Scottish doctor and his widowed landlady, the owner of the apothecary shop in Tooley Street.  Sinclair is filled with twists and tragedies, but it will leave you feeling good.

Also available on:

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Amazon New Zealand

Amazon South Africa

Amazon USA

 

 

Princess Sophia Dorothea the Uncrowned Queen of Britain

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History of Women in Art: The Woman Who Painted Marie-Antoinette

History of Women in Art: The Woman Who Painted Marie-Antoinette

Between 1780 and 1810, many French women painters reached impressive heights of artistic achievement and professional success. They achieved this despite a cap on the number of women admitted to France’s prestigious Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture, and restrictions that barred women from the life drawing classes. At the end of the eighteenth century, women ranked among the most sought-after artists in Europe.

One such was Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun. Le Brun was born in Paris on 16 April 1755, the daughter of a portraitist and fan painter and a hairdresser. Her early childhood was spent in the country where she attended a residential convent school until she was eleven. When she returned home, her father recognised his daughter’s natural skills and ability to paint and gave her access to his studio to develop her skills. Unfortunately, her father died a couple of years later, but luckily her mother married Jacques Le Sèvre, a highly successful jeweller a year later and the family moved to the Rue Saint-Honoré, close to the Palais Royal where Elisabeth continued to paint. By the time she was in her early teens, Elisabeth was painting portraits professionally although ran into trouble with the Paris artists’ guild for practising without a license.

Elisabeth married Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Le Brun, a painter and art dealer in 1776 and the pair began what was to become a very successful business and family life. Four years later Elisabeth gave birth to her first and only child, a daughter, Julie and a year after that she set off to tour Flanders and the Netherlands with her husband to paint members of the Dutch aristocracy. While Elisabeth was there, she was inspired by the paintings he saw in the homes and galleries she visited and decided to adopt some of their techniques. In 1787, she caused a minor public scandal with a self-portrait, that showed her smiling which was at the time considered outrageous as no Greek statue ever showed their teeth!

Her growing fame won her an invitation to the Palace of Versailles and the patronage of Marie Antoinette. Le Brun painted the queen and her children more than thirty times for six years. Le Brun supported the queen’s campaign to present herself as a doting mother, and in return, the queen supported Le Bruns’ application to France’s most prestigious academy, the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpture. She was admitted in 1783 on the same day has another female artist, Adélaïde Labille-Guiard giving the press an opportunity to cast the two women as rivals, pitting Le Brun’s “feminine” style of loose brushstrokes, high-toned colour, and flattering renderings of her sitters against the more “masculine” characteristics of crisp, muted tones, and truth to nature of Labille-Guard’s work. Although many critics applauded the women’s prominence, others lambasted them for immodesty and pamphleteers frequently depicted them naked.

Royal patronage was fine until the outbreak of the revolution in 1789 when association with the royal family was tantamount to a death warrant so Le Brun, who was now separated from her husband, took her daughter and fled to Italy where she lived and worked from 1789 to 1792. From Italy, she moved to Austria where she worked for three years then to  Russia where she painted the portraits of aristocrats until 1801.

After a sustained campaign by her ex-husband and other family members to have her name removed from the list of counter-revolutionary émigrés, Le Brun was finally able to return to France during the reign of Emperor Napoleon I in 1804. In spite of being no longer labelled as émigrée, her relationship with the new regime was never totally harmonious, as might be expected given that she was a staunch royalist and the former portraitist of Marie Antoinette.

Much in demand by the élite of Europe, she visited England at the beginning of the 19th century and painted the portrait of several British notables, including Lord Byron. In 1807 she travelled to Switzerland and was made an honorary member of the Société pour l’Avancement des Beaux-Arts of Geneva.

She published her memoirs in 1835 and 1837, which provide an interesting view of the training of artists at the end of the period dominated by royal academies. Still very active with her painting in her fifties, she purchased a house in Louveciennes, Île-de-France, and lived there until the house was seized by the Prussian Army during the war in 1814. She stayed in Paris until her death on 30 March 1842 when her body was taken back to Louveciennes and buried in the Cimetière de Louveciennes near her old home. Her tombstone epitaph states “Ici, enfin, je repose…” (Here, at last, I rest…).

Sources: Wikipedia,

Katharine Baetjer, Department of European Paintings, The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Illustrations: Self portrait with Julie. Marie-Antoinette with her children.

Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is  Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29  Also available on:

Amazon Australia

Amazon Canada

Amazon New Zealand

Amazon South Africa

Amazon USA

Maria Cosway the Artist who Captured the Heart of Thomas Jefferson

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Mary Moser – Founding Member of London’s Royal Academy

History of Women in Science: Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Physicist

History of Women in Science: Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Physicist

Astronomy, mathematics and physics were popular fields of study for many of the brightest 18th-century women with access to money and books. Gabrielle-Emilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil was one such woman. She was the daughter of the French court’s chief of protocol and her father rather unusually for the time encouraged her education. By the time she was twelve she was fluent in Latin, Italian, Greek and German.

Gabrielle-Emilie was a precocious teenager as well as a child genius; she liked to dance, was a passable performer on the harpsichord, sang opera, and was an amateur actress. Being short of money for books, she used her mathematical skills to devise highly successful strategies for gambling. Her mother Gabrielle-Anne was horrified tried to have her clever daughter sent to a convent.

In 1725 Gabrielle-Emilie married the Marquis du Chatelet at the age of 19 and lived the life of a courtier at the French court. She bore her husband three children, but at age 27 she began studying mathematics seriously and then branched into physics. This interest intensified when she started an affair with the philosopher Voltaire. Their friendship, if not their relationship, was lifelong and one of mutual respect and admiration.

Her philosophical magnum opus, Institutions de Physique or Foundations of Physics, was published in 1740 when she was 34. It was an immediate success, circulated widely, and republished and translated into several other languages within two years of its publication. With a growing reputation in the world of men, she participated in the famous vis viva debate concerning the calculation of the motion of orbiting bodies – the planets. However, Du Chatelet’s most lasting contribution to science was her French translation of Isaac Newton’s Principia, which is still in use today.

At age 43, she fell in love with a young military officer and became pregnant; she died following complications during the birth of their child. Posthumously, her ideas were included in the Encyclopédie of Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond D’Alembert.

Sources: Smithsonian Magazine, Wikipedia, Illustration: The Granger Collection, New York.

Iona McNeal, is a character in my new novel, Sinclair. Iona is a bright young woman, the daughter of the head of Edinburgh’s medical school. She studies mathematics, physics and astronomy at home. You can find out what happens to her in my latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 and on Kindle

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