Painter and salonnière Maria Cosway was born Maria Luisa Caterina Cecilia Hadfield in 1760 in Florence to Charles Hadfield, a native of Shrewsbury (?) and an Italian mother. Charles was a wealthy innkeeper at Livorno and operated three inns in Tuscany, frequented by British Grand Tourists. A devout Catholic throughout her life, she studied art under Violente Cerroti and Johann Zoffany in Florence.
From 1773 to 1778, she copied Old Masters at the Uffizi Gallery and was elected to the Academia del Disegno. Tragedy struck when four of the eight Hadfield children were killed by a mentally ill nursemaid. After her father’s death, her mother settled with the family in London in 1779. In January 1781, Maria married the celebrated portrait painter Richard Cosway who was twenty years her senior. Embarrased by her foreign manners, he kept Maria secluded until she fully mastered English language and manners. She had an affair with Thomas Jefferson in 1786 while he served in Paris as the American envoy to France.
Between 1781 and 1801 she exhibited more than thirty of her works at the Royal Academy of Art. In 1784, the Cosways moved into Schomberg House, Pall Mall. Multilingual and well-connected, she cultivated an international circle of artists and politicians who attended her salon. She was known as the ‘Goddess of Pall-Mall’. The couple eventually separated and Maria spent much of her time in Paris where she became friends with Napoleon’s uncle, Cardinal Joseph Fesch. In 1797, she commissioned Venetian artist Francesco Cossa to paint a portrait of young Napoleon (now in the Sir John Soane’s Museum) which was later referred to as the ‘earliest recorded evidence of British admiration for Napoleon’. I
n Paris, Joseph Fesch persuaded her to run a college for young ladies which she managed from 1803 until 1809. She was then invited by the Duke of Lodi to establish a convent and school for girls near Milan. She directed the Collegio delle Grazie until her death in 1838.