Woman of Two Worlds
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for An Imperial Legacy
On view now and extended indefinitely, Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy marks the first time the Maryland Center for History and Culture has featured an exhibition exclusively devoted to a historical female figure. Open through August 2022.
The Dramatic Life of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte
Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, born in Baltimore in 1785, was the oldest daughter of 13 children. Her father was William Patterson, an Irish shipping merchant and one of the wealthiest men in Maryland. Elizabeth attended Madame Lacombe's Academy and studied history, culture, mathematics, and French, a skill that would later prove useful. She grew into a great beauty—a woman of dainty stature, an ivory complexion, and a celebrated bosom. Her taste for the latest European fashions inspired her to wear gowns considered risqué by American standards.
Her beauty, coupled with her sharp wit, charm, and fierce independence, made Elizabeth one of the most desirable women in Baltimore. She declined many marriage proposals from wealthy, powerful men on both sides of the Atlantic. She once stated in a letter to her father that "Nature never intended me for obscurity." Indeed it hadn't, for it blessed her with the beauty and allure that mesmerized Napoleon's younger brother Jérôme and thrust her into a love affair that would forever change her life.
The exhibition includes silver, porcelain, paintings, textiles, jewelry, manuscripts, and furniture associated with Elizabeth and her descendants. Of particular note are a collection of extraordinary French porcelain purchased by Elizabeth in Paris around 1815, 40 examples of silver used by Elizabeth and her descendants, Elizabeth's pearl and garnet tiara and other jewelry, and one of her "scandalous" dresses in the French style. In total, more than 100 objects are on view in the exhibition.
In addition, one of the jewels of the show is a portrait of Elizabeth by Gilbert Stuart that remains in private hands. The breathtaking painting will be on loan to MCHC for the duration of the exhibition.
The exhibition emphasizes the two worlds that Elizabeth inhabited. On one side of the gallery space is the American world, with portraits of the Patterson family, a dress owned by Elizabeth's beloved mother, Dorcas Spear, and even the French dictionary she used as a girl. On the other side of the gallery is the European world, which displays the elegant accoutrements of Elizabeth's life after her 1815 divorce from Jérôme.
Although her frugality moved her to devote most of her money to her son's education, Elizabeth always had a taste for elegant fashion and accessories. Her silk and cashmere shawls, velvet turbans, finely wrought lace cuffs, exquisite jewelry, and elegant gowns attest to a woman who spent her money wisely and maintained an elegant appearance at all times. Her account books attest to the expenditures she made on shoes, gowns, jewelry, and beauty products throughout her lifetime.
Even in her later years, Elizabeth's beauty was central to her persona and celebrity.