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Thomas Jefferson And Maria Cosway
It was a romance in which the statesman found his Head at war with his Heart
August 1971 | Volume 22, Issue 5
When she was not entertaining, Maria worked on her painting. Richard had no intention of permitting any competition within the family and insisted she devote her efforts to portraits of close friends and landscapes. But Maria painted a fine portrait of the Duchess of Devonshire, establishing a reputation despite her husband’s efforts to hide her ability, and was soon exhibiting work in the Royal Academy.
Although Maria enjoyed London life, she could not accustom herself to the English climate, and her health deteriorated. In the summer of 1786 the Cosways travelled to France, where Richard could work on a commission for the Duc d’Orléans and Maria could recover. They visited galleries and exhibitions and made acquaintances among members of the art world in Paris, including John Trumbull. Then in August the Cosways arranged the jaunt with Trumbull and Trumbull’s friend, the American minister to France. For Maria Cosway and Thomas Jefferson it was a fateful journey.
The Virginian was smitten hard at this first meeting with Maria, a classic case of love at first sight. Maria was beautiful, vivacious, talented, and still young at twenty-seven. Her delicately rounded face held eyes so deeply blue that they often appeared violet. Her hair was golden blond. She was slim and graceful; she spoke in a soft and musical voice that held an attractive hint of Italian accent. Jefferson thought the lady had “qualities and accomplishments belonging to her sex, which might form a chapter apart for her: such as music, modesty, beauty and that softness of disposition which is the ornament of her sex and the charm of ours.”
What was Maria’s initial impression of Jefferson? She was not so taken with him as he was with her, but still was profoundly impressed. The Virginian was an important and famous public figure, ruggedly mature at forty-three, and a widower. Being thoroughly feminine, Maria could not help responding to the tall man whose eyes so plainly reflected his admiration of her. When Jefferson found himself unable to leave her company that August afternoon, Maria readily agreed that they should prolong their first meeting.
All four had other engagements, but they broke them and drove off to St.—Cloud for dinner. Returning to the city that evening, they stopped to watch a display of fireworks and then called on Johann Baptist Krumpholtz, composer and teacher of the harp. For Jefferson at least, where the party stopped was of little importance, as long as stops were made. “If the day had been as long as a Lapland summer day,” Jefferson and Maria Cosway would still have found excuses to fill it.
In the weeks following their first encounter Maria Cosway and Thomas Jefferson were constant companions. At first they were accompanied by Richard or by John Trumbull; but those gentlemen had their own interests, and soon Maria and the American were alone together. Maria fell into the habit of rushing into Jefferson’s house unannounced. When Jefferson called on Maria, Richard often excused himself and left his wife alone with her visitor.
The days passed swiftly. By mid-September Richard had nearly finished his work for the Duc d’Orléans. When that was completed, the Cosways would return to London. A few days remained for Maria and Jefferson to share each other’s company—but on September 18, 1786, Jefferson broke his right wrist. There are at least two versions of how the accident occurred. All Jefferson would ever say about it was that “it was by one of those follies from which good cannot come, but ill may.”
According to one account, the pair were walking together along the Seine. They came to a fence that the Virginian decided to jump, no doubt with the intention of helping his lady across from the far side. However, forty-three-year-old gentlemen often do not jump fences with the same agility they demonstrated twenty years earlier. In this case the attempt proved disastrous for Jefferson.
In another version, perhaps less romantic but probably more factual, Jefferson left his front door for a meeting with Maria. Exuberant at the prospect of seeing her again, he attempted to jump a small decorative pool on the way to his carriage, tripped, and fractured his wrist as he tried to break his fall.
However it happened, the wrist was obviously injured and doctors were summoned. They diagnosed the wrist as “dislocated” and did such a poor job of setting it that Jefferson was left in excruciating pain for many days to come. As it turned out, the wrist was to bother him for the rest of his life. During the weeks it was immobilized, he laboriously taught himself to write with his left hand. Even years later, writing normally was often awkward.
Painful wrist and all, Jefferson spent many happy hours with Maria, sightseeing and attending the theater. Now, however, the day of parting was fast upon them. On October 4, 1786, they spent one last day in each other’s company, riding about Paris. The carriage rocking over the rough cobbles of the Paris streets did Jefferson’s wrist no good. Next morning, after a night spent sleepless with pain, the Virginian found it difficult to accept the fact that Maria was to be separated from him.