Portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte [1785–1879] by Firmin Massot (1766–1849), 1823. Oil on canvas. Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.
As the heroine of a novel, Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte might have suited Edith Wharton or possibly Henry James. We could also think of her as an early version of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. Born in Baltimore, the oldest daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant, Elizabeth Patterson seems to have had her eye on the main chance from an early age. She was well educated, had a flair for wearing European fashions, and knew how to make herself into a fascinator. Eventually she captivated Jerome Bonaparte, the luxury loving brother of Napoleon, during his sojourn in America. Their marriage, opposed by both the future ruler of France and William Patterson, Elizabeth’s father, lasted only three years, but Elizabeth lived on the celebrity of it for the rest of her life. The long saga of her pursuit of an appropriate title for herself and her son may seem like the stuff of melodrama but there was more to Elizabeth than that. She learned to use her name and her modest annuity from her former husband to buy up Baltimore real estate and make herself into a powerful and widely discussed figure. She also bought the European silver, porcelain, paintings, jewelry, and elegant clothes that the Maryland Historical Society has on view until June 2014.
Alexandra Kirtley, the Montgomery-Garvan Associate Curator of American Decorative Arts at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and a Baltimore native, had this to say about the exhibition: “I have read so much about Betsy Bonaparte and her captivating beauty and tantalizing mode of dress (which was talked about everywhere, including here in Philadelphia), but this exhibition gave me the opportunity to know her through the works of art that really defined her. I finally saw her on her own terms.”
Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy · Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore · to June 9, 2014 · mdhs.org