I came across the story while reading Thomas Jefferson: An Intimate History by Fawn Brodie who covers it in detail and in American Sphinx: The Character of Thomas Jefferson by Joseph J. Ellis (I understand the affair was partially the subject of the film "Jefferson in Paris" which I have not seen). I have always been fascinated with Jefferson as so many have. He was brilliant and fundamentally American yet his personal life was complicated - beset with tragedy and conflicts which possess a timeless appeal and a certain mystery to those who study him. The Cosway affair is a prime example.
Jefferson's wife Martha died tragically in 1782 following the birth of their daughter Lucy Elizabeth. In the wake of her death, Jefferson had accepted a diplomatic post as the American Minister to France in 1784 . Ellis writes: "He agreed to accept the diplomatic post in Paris as part of the effort to move past this tragedy and to escape from his memories of Martha at Monticello" "....Family tradition tells the story, he promised his dying wife that he would never remarry. The promise he made to himself undoubtedly had the same effect: He would never expose his soul to such pain again; he would rather be lonely than vulnerable. "
According to Brodie, Jefferson was introduced to Maria Cosway in August 1786, at the "Halle aux Bleds, the big, new noisy Paris grain market... famous for its giant dome-130 feet across-constructed of wooden ribs in such a fashion that the interior was flooded with light." Apparently, Jefferson had to be persuaded to go "thinking that he might at least see architecture worth copying for a market in Richmond..." She continues: "What he saw there, he wrote later to Maria, was 'the most superb thing on earth.' But he was not writing 'of a parcel of sticks and chips put together in pens,' but the lady 'to whom we had been presented.'"
Ellis describes Jefferson's initial reaction to meeting Cosway:
In a letter, Jefferson reminisced about a day spent with Cosway:
If ever Jefferson encountered the essence of femininity as he imagined it, Cosway personified the ideal perfectly. She was described by contemporaries as "a golden-haired, languishing Anglo-Italian, graceful to affectation, and highly accomplished, especially in music," and the various portraits that survive depict a set of deep blue eyes, a tumble of blond curls, a beguiling blend of hauteur and vulnerability. When these were combined with an almost imperious pouting posture and the soft trace of a foreign accent-Italian was her native language-the total effect was usually devastating on men. Jefferson proved no exception. They met in early August 1786, introduced by the young American artist John Trumbull, who had accepted Jefferson's invitation to join his household in Paris while he worked on his painting "The Declaration of Independence." Within days Jefferson was head over heels in love.
For the next six weeks Jefferson and Cosway were together almost daily, touring every garden, viewing every distinctive building, statue, painting or ancient ruin in Paris, and its environs. For Jefferson, the luxuriant beauty of a work of art activated the same deep pool of passion that a beautiful woman also tapped-aesthetic appreciation and femininity were closely associated primal urges within his soul - and the commingling of Parisian art and architecture with the seductive attractions of a beautiful young woman (Cosway was twenty-seven) generated an explosive combination that left him utterly infatuated. He ignored his diplomatic chores, often dispatching Petit to make his excuses for missed appointments.
Oh! my dear friend, how you have revived me by recalling to my mind the transactions of that day! How well I remember them all, and that when I came home at night and looked back to the morning, it seemed to have been a month agone. Go on then, like a kind comforter, and paint to me the day we went to St. Germains. How beautiful was every object! the Port de Neuilly, the hills along the Seine, the rainbows of the machine of Marly, the terras of St. Germains, the chateaux, the gardens, the [statues] of Marly, the pavillon of Lucienne. Recollect too Madrid, Bagatelle, the King's garden, the Dessert. How grand the idea excited by the remains of such a column! The spiral staircase too was beautiful. Every moment was filled with something agreeable. The wheels of time moved on with a rapidity of which those of our carriage gave but a faint idea, and yet in the evening, when one took a retrospect of the day, what a mass of happiness had we travelled over!Jefferson was truly "head over heels". There was just one problem. Cosway was married. Brodie writes:
Her husband [Richard Cosway] was a small man, shorter even than his wife, invariably dressed with foppish elegance. He was forty-four, close to Jefferson's age, and had been married for only three years. He was bouncy and cheerful; in his wife's words, "toujours riant, toujours gai," but also fulsome and sycophantic. English critics would describe him as "an absurd little coxcomb," "a preposterous little Dresden china manikin." James Northcote dismissed him as "one of those butterfly characters that nobody minded, so that his opinion went for nothing."
"Though he was mocked for his pretentiousness in dress, especially a mulberry silk coat ornamented with strawberries, and was described as having a face like a monkey, Cosway in painting self-portraits not surprisingly showed a handsome man, with no trace in his face either of dandyism, or of the cruelty with which he treated his wife. Everyone in the bohemian London court circle in which they moved knew that Maria was wretchedly unhappy. James Northcote, who said she married out of necessity when her mother's money was exhausted, wrote that "she always despised him." And Jefferson, with the special sensitivity of a man in need of love, must have seen this the first afternoon"
I will not attempt to recount the entire story which you can find in the references, but there is wide disagreement among historians as to what happened that fall. Much of the details are shrouded in mystery. We do know that the affair ended and as Ellis writes:
subsequent correspondence charts the gradual and inevitable cooling of the infatuation. It also bears witness to his urge to transport his palpable feelings for a real woman to a more imaginary region where perfect love could be more easily and safely experienced. In December 1786, still suffering from the wrist injury and the pain of separation, he recalled a magic cap he had read about as a child that enabled its wearer to fly wherever he wished. "I should wish myself with you, and not wish myself away again,"he wrote. "If I cannot be with you in reality, I will in imagination. " He reported his dream of the two of them in Virginia, visiting the Natural Bridge: "I shall meet you there, and visit with you all the grand scenes. I had rather be deceived than live without hope. It is so sweet! It makes us ride so smoothly over the roughness of life.
In October 1786, Jefferson would write a now famous twelve page love letter to Cosway known as "My Head and My Heart", and according to Brodie is what:
Julian Boyd properly calls "one of the notable love letters in the English language." In a contrived though not unusual eighteenth-century conceit, he wrote in the form of a dialogue, with first his Head speaking, and then his Heart. "
The famous letter - according to Brodie an "important window into Jefferson's inner life..." and the "..subject of such divergent and contradictory interpretations" - is linked here. As Brodie eloquently states: "it is less a debate than a searching examination of himself." For example, Jefferson writes:
Deeply practised in the school of affliction, the human heart knows no joy which I have not lost, no sorrow of which I have not drank! Fortune can present no grief of unknown form to me! Who then can so softly bind up the wound of another as he who has felt the same wound himself? But Heaven forbid they should ever know a sorrow!
It turns out that Trumbull painted a miniature of Jefferson and presented it to Cosway which she kept at her home in Lodi, Italy. I was personally compelled to try and find this picture, and apparently, it was presented to the American government by Italy at the bicentennial in 1976 and now resides at the White House. I found a link of the picture here and another which I believe is a copy here. Jefferson kept an engraving of Cosway at Monticello and it still hangs today. Let me leave you with what I consider to be one more treasure from Jefferson's letters to Cosway quoted in Brodie:
...I send you the song I promised. bring me in return its subject, Jours Heureux!
Apparently, the song was from Antonio Sacchini's opera "Dardanus" which premiered in Paris in 1784. The song is:
Jours heureux, espoir enchanteur!
Prix charmant d'un amour si tendre!
Je vais la voir, je vais l'entendre
Je vais retrouver le bonheur!
(Happy days, Enchanting hope!
Charming prize of a love so tender!
I'm going to see her, I'm going to hear her
I'm going to find happiness again!)
(I found a link to the music here which apparently is also on the movie's soundtrack.)
Hopefully, the contemplation of Jefferson's life and the fact that a man like this lived and held the highest office in the land can remind us of the wonderful possibilities of this world and alllow us to "ride" a little more "smoothly over the roughness of life".