Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, born in Baltimore in 1785, was the oldest daughter of thirteen children. Her father was William Patterson, an Irish shipping merchant and one of the wealthiest men in Maryland. Elizabeth was a great beauty - a woman of dainty stature and 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 Jerome and thrust her into a love affair that would forever change her life.


About the Exhibition

With hundreds of objects and reams of documents, the Maryland Historical Society is the official keeper of Elizabeth's memories. On view from June 9, 2013 - June 9, 2014, the "Woman of Two Worlds:" Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy exhibit marks the first time the Maryland Historical Society has featured a exhibition exclusively devoted to a historical female figure.

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, forty examples of silver used by Elizabeth and her descendents, 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 will be 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 the MdHS 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 Jerome. 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.