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Aging Gracefully

By Alexandra Deutsch, Chief Curator

Age Progression Image by Mike Streed

In 1858, when Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was seventy-three years old, she lamented “My Beauty is departed,” a sentiment she had uttered for decades. Her beauty had been celebrated throughout her life. In her youth, she was thought the most beautiful woman in America. Her appearance was the thing of legends and, in 1803, drew Jérôme Bonaparte to Baltimore to meet the “exquisite creature” described to him.

For a woman whose beauty was central to her identity, aging must have been difficult. Rather than embracing the changes time wrought, Elizabeth defied them. Her account books documents a recipe for hair dye, as well as various compounds to create creams and possibly cosmetics. If she must age, she was going to do it as gracefully as possible.

As early as 1815 when Elizabeth was 30, a letter from her friend Elizabeth Godefroy suggests that Elizabeth saw her looks declining. Godefroy assures her, “I do not believe you about your looks.” Perhaps she attributed her visible aging to the strain and stress of Napoléon’s annulment, her return to her father’s unwelcoming home in Baltimore and her (successful) suit for divorce from Jérôme. Life had been, as Elizabeth once said, “a mean and grinding martyrdom.” Such emotional misery is not easy on the looks.

Despite her perception of her appearance, Elizabeth’s beauty is documented in several surviving portraits. In 1838 when Elizabeth was 53, she had her silhouette cut in Rockaway Beach, New York. The solid black image depicts her in profile with a softening jawline and an appropriately middle-aged appearance. The silhouette is the last known image of her that survives. To date, no photographs of her are known. Instead, Elizabeth commissioned copies of her portraits to give as gifts. How did this woman look at 40, 60, 90?

Betsy Draft_40_60_90
Age Progression by Mike Streed

To answer this question, we turned to internationally-known forensic artist, Michael W. Streed, the owner of SketchCop Solutions. Using existing images of Elizabeth, Streed age-progressed her, a delicate trick of artistry and intuition that produced fascinating results. The images Streed created are now on view in “Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy.”

I asked Streed a few questions about the process of “aging Elizabeth” and the challenges it presented. These were his responses to my questions.

How did you approach the project?

I read about Miss Bonaparte and her privileged, yet tragic life.  I tried to imagine what it was like to carry her burden throughout the years.  This led me to depict her as a proud, yet determined woman.  An elegant woman not jaded, nor affected by environmental elements throughout her many travels overseas.

What was the greatest challenge?

My greatest challenge was accurately capturing Elizabeth Bonaparte’s photographic likeness from a painting.  Miss Bonaparte had a unique facial structure that was difficult to duplicate.  I believe in the end I was successful capturing her facial nuances.  It took hours of reading and research to find the correct fashions and hairstyles for the various time periods throughout her life.  Equally challenging was finding the right combination of photos to maintain the integrity of her identity as she gracefully and elegantly aged.

Did the results surprise you?

The results always surprise me during historical projects, mainly because the subjects themselves are so fascinating.  Each of them has a look that makes them unique.  A person’s face says much about their personality.  Capturing it and maintaining it through a period of many years is the key to success.

Is there anything else you want me to add about the project?

Working on historical figures is always a pleasing distraction from my daily work depicting criminals.  Although I have a passion for helping crime victims, I equally enjoy working with those tasked with preserving the rich history here in Baltimore.  The opportunity to partner with highly intelligent, passionate and curious people enriches my life and makes me excited for what each new day might bring.

Money, Power, and Singleness: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s Account Books

By Yve Colby

MS142  Red Letter/Account Book. Betsy Patterson Bonaparte.  Page 55 Ca. 1861-1878. Manuscript Sec. III & Sec. IV Box 13A of 16 Special Collections

Red Letter/Account Book. Betsy Patterson Bonaparte.
Page 55
Ca. 1861-1878.
Sec. III & Sec. IV
Box 13A of 16
Special Collections

Much can be learned from the pages of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte’s twenty-one surviving account books: her material purchasing habits, diet, lifestyle, travels, opinions of family members, and much, much more. Her account books are part financial account, shopping record, inventory, journal, and commonplace book.

They include her daily purchases of food, clothing, textiles, accessories, fine and decorative art, furniture, housing, meals, carriage rentals, payments to servants, gifts, etc., as well as her financial records of stocks, dividends and ground rental payments received from her numerous properties. These books also include home recipes for everything from hair dye to cures for rheumatism.

The information found in these small books provides insights into her mundane as well as her luxurious expenditures, such as jewelry or silver.

Elizabeth often used her account books as journals, a place where she wrote down quotations from literary works and her thoughts on everything from politics to her family members, and of course, her famous ex-husband, Jérôme Bonaparte. They also record her material consumption patterns, the ways she spent and managed her money, the purchases she made, and her travels­­ in both Europe and America. In addition, her account books include records of her thoughts, emotions, and motivations.

One quote written on the inner cover of a book dating from 1840-1859 is particularly revealing. She cites Samuel Johnson, writing: “Getting money is not all a man’s Business; to cultivate kindness is a valuable part of the Business of Life.” On the next page she writes: “…It taught me to keep accounts, to save my income, [and] to avoid sacrificing future comfort to present amusement or ostentatious [and] vain Expenditure-E.P. 1841”. She goes on to quote Byron, writing “as long as money shall continue to be one of the greatest sources of power so long will they who seek influence over their fellow men attach value to it as an instrument [and] the more lowly they are inclined to estimate the disaster.” Another quote written towards the end of the same book, is especially heartbreaking. In a confessional moment, Elizabeth writes, “I was like the Egg of the ostrich laid in the sand for any thing or person who chose to crush or to cherish me.”

Looking to some of the most significant relationships in Elizabeth’s life, that last passage in particular speaks volumes. Her relationships with Jérôme, her father, and her son all seem to share the lack of control over how she might be treated that is implicit in that statement. Her finances were one area of her life where she could take control.

Elizabeth’s writings in particular speak to the mentality of a woman driven by a need for power and control at a time in America’s history when women often had little power over their own circumstances. At this time, a married woman was not legally allowed to manage her own finances and technically needed the approval of her husband for a contract.

In November 1812, six years after Napoleon had Jerome and Betsy’s marriage annulled in France, Elizabeth took control of her finances and her life when she filed for a divorce in the United States. Her life choices to remain single after her divorce and to split her time between Europe and the United States shaped her purchasing patterns. Her singleness allowed her the freedom to live her life the way she desired, despite what her father or others thought. After she filed for a divorce in America, she had the independence fully control her finances, her greatest source of power. It is easy to see how she may have viewed her singleness as equal to power.

Elizabeth’s remarkable diligence when managing her finances–evident in page after page of her meticulous records–was something she took pride in, and repeatedly notes: “…Statement on 1871 1st of January of my Property in Stocks-all of which the Product of my Labor!” and “1 January 1871 List of Elizabeth Pattersons [sic], generally called Mme Bonaparte, Stocks made by her on 1 January 1871-Personal Property the result of her laborious Efforts.” She wanted to make sure that anyone who read these books knew her financial success was the result of her efforts and no one else’s. Her finances were an important part of her identity, just like the material goods she surrounded herself with and used to shape her social and personal identity.

During this time, most women were noted in shopkeeper’s accounts under their husband’s names, making it difficult to track women’s spending. The fact that Elizabeth paid her own bills allows us to fully understand her spending patterns in a way that scholars can do with few other 19th century women. Studying the collection of objects associated with Elizabeth at the Maryland Historical Society while also examining her account books illuminates a picture of this extraordinary woman’s material and spiritual life.


Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte. Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte Papers, 1802-1879. MS 142, Boxes 13a, 13b, 14. MdHS.

Burn, Helen Jean. Betsy Bonaparte. Baltimore: The Maryland Historical Society, 2010.

About the author: Yve Colby is currently pursuing a Masters Degree in the History of Decorative Arts at George Mason University in Partnership with the Smithsonian Associates. Her area of interest is early American material culture, with a focus on costume, textiles, and the experiences of women. She is currently writing her Masters Thesis on Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte using the collection at the Maryland Historical Society, and is exploring how Bonaparte used her material possessions to shape her social and personal identity. She is also the part-time Art Curator for the Cosmos Club in Washington, D.C.



The Story of a Shawl

By Barbara Meger, Curatorial Volunteer

The ‘Woman of Two Worlds’ Exhibit at The Maryland Historical Society

On display at the Maryland Historical Society, as part of the exhibition “A Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy,” is a beautifully worked fine white muslin shawl lined with chrome yellow silk (xx.5.101).  The gossamer thin cotton muslin is exquisitely embroidered in a paisley motif with a leaf and scroll border worked in satin stitch with openwork.  It was once thought that this shawl may have been worn with the yellow silk dress worn by Elizabeth in her circa 1823 portrait by Firmin Massot.

Elizabeth kept meticulous records which are now part of the MdHS manuscripts collection in the H. Furlong Baldwin Library (MS 142).  Expense journals and extensive inventories made throughout her life reveal a different story about this shawl.  A first mention appears in her “Account of Cloathes,” written on August 10, 1815 which notes, “2 Long Worked Muslin Shawls.”

Commercially embroidered muslin from India for gowns and accessories such as handkerchiefs and scarves had been at the height of fashion since the latter part of the eighteenth century when women’s gowns were simplified from elaborate heavy brocaded ensembles to plain Grecian-style garments.  The MdHS costume collection contains several examples of these gowns, such as the simple muslin gown with long train currently on view in the exhibition.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Firmin Massot, 1823, MdHS, XX.5.69

We do not know when or where Elizabeth acquired her two muslin shawls.  When she made the above account she had just arrived in Cheltenham, England where she spent several months shopping and seeing the sights before going on to her first trip to Paris in November, 1815.

She made three more trips to Europe before she listed on July 1, 1839 the “Contents of long trunk with 2 locks to take with me to France” and recorded “2 brodé Indian muslin long shawls.”

We can hypothesize that these are the same shawls she mentioned twenty-four years earlier.  She mentions them again upon arrival in Paris, August 1839, in her “Apparel inventory” recording “2 long india muslin shawls brodés en blanc.”

By 1839, fashion had changed. Silhouettes were still somewhat slender, but fabrics were heavier and vibrant in color. Elizabeth was fifty-five in 1830 and the Massot portrait had been done seven years earlier.  On “25 avril 1840” she noted that she spent 18 francs for yellow silk “for lining scarf,” then three days later, she spent 29 francs 10 sous “to Mlle Trouvair Mallet for mending lace and lining scarf.” Throughout her life, the always frugal Elizabeth “refreshed” her wardrobe by altering garments. Her inventive treatment of the shawl was just one example.

On another trip to Paris in an note dated July 17, 1861, Elizabeth lists among the “contents of Round Top box” “1 white india shawl – 1 yellow india shawl.” Two days later she notes that “Box No 1” contains “1 long white india muslin shawl.” We do not know if one of these shawls is the one she had lined with yellow silk.  In March 1864, when Elizabeth was seventy-nine, she made her last trip to Paris. Among her luggage for that trip, Elizabeth listed in the contents of “flat top box No 1” “1 india Muslin Shawl lined with yellow silk.” Elizabeth’s final mention of “2 long white India Muslin Shawls” is made on May 27, 1875 in a listing of her effects left at “Miss Guinns in my case.” Miss Gwinn owned the boarding house where Elizabeth rented rooms until her death in 1879.

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte had a taste for beautiful clothing and kept many of the same garments and accessories throughout her adult life. Always one to keep in pace with the changing fashions, she found ways to revitalize her wardrobe by enlivening it with alterations and adaptations. The advice “renew, reuse, recycle” is nothing new and Elizabeth embraced the philosophy with remarkable style.

People are Talking: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and the Gossip

Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, Firmin Massot, 1823, MdHS, XX.5.69

In 1814, Elizabeth wrote to Dolley Madison, her friend and confidante, “[the] Public are so malicious & so much pleased when people meet with disappointments that I wish to avoid gratifying them again at my expense.” Since her marriage in 1803 to Jérôme Bonaparte, Napoléon’s brother, Elizabeth’s life had gratified a gossip hungry public. The glamour of her union, followed by the devastating annulment of the marriage by Napoléon in 1805, provided perfect fodder for a public who found a famous person’s “disappointments” titillating.

As Charlene Boyer Lewis pointed out in Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic (2012), Elizabeth craved the celebrity that came to her. Never content with Baltimore, she had long sought a bigger stage for her beauty, wit and ambition. Late in life she reflected to her friend, Martha Custis Williams Carter, “I suppose no one ever lived who was more ambitious than I was unless it might have been Napoleon & Alexander the Great.”

To enhance her celebrity, Elizabeth dressed in a manner that won her attention, both negative and positive. Blessed with a beauty that captivated men and women alike, Elizabeth was among the first women in American to adopt the French fashion.

Her thin muslin gowns, though not scandalous by modern standards, provoked comments. A female observer remarked on one of Elizabeth’s gowns commenting, “Madame Jerome was there as handsome as ever but, a little more in the fashion of uncovering.” The unstructured, high-waisted gowns of the early nineteenth century revealed women’s figures in a way previously unknown. Arms and chests were bare, loosely cut muslins gave view to the outlines of a woman’s legs, and undergarments, once rigidly structured, softened to accommodate the new, Classically-inspired styles.

Even today, one of the first questions I am asked about Elizabeth is “How see-through were her gowns?” During the creation of her mannequin, this question came up again and again. Did she really appear “naked?” The answer, much to most people’s disappointment, is that she was never “naked” in the modern sense of the word. The mere fact that the outline of her figure and the movement of her hips and legs were visually evident was enough to send tongues wagging. Charles Carroll of Carrollton, one of the wealthiest men in the country, remarked on Elizabeth’s “no dress” as opposed to her “dress.” To him, a man of the 18th century who recalled women wearing torso-length corsets and skirts full enough to conceal the movement of their legs, Elizabeth’s choice of dress was in fact an absence rather than a presence. In fact, Elizabeth’s inventories document the numerous shifts or slips she wore under her gowns as well as the “stay laces” she purchased for her corsets. With the addition of these underpinnings, the sheerness of her gowns was minimized.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of speaking about Elizabeth is that even today the aspect of “gossip” is central to the discussion. Assumptions are made about Elizabeth based on the same stereotypes of celebrity we embrace today. She was beautiful therefore no one thinks of her intelligence and business acumen. Her figure was stunning therefore she must have flaunted it as a celebrity would today. Men adored her therefore she must have had a romantic life worthy of comment.

Despite the fact that she lived her life without scandal in the modern sense, it is still viewed as scandalous. Yes, she defied American conventions of “proper” womanhood. She remained unmarried, traveled alone and never succumbed to society’s prescribed role for a single woman. Forever focused on achieving an imperial legacy for her son, Bo, Elizabeth never entangled herself publicly with any man after Jérôme. Although her male admirers were many, there is no record of her private life beyond her associations with the Bonapartes, her travels, and her beauty. She had suitors, but never allowed herself to enter into any permanent entanglement. As one of her European acquaintances remarked, “You are a severely virtuous woman.” She did not mean it as a compliment.

Despite this, people were always talking about Elizabeth and conjuring stories about her life. In 1873 before her death, the hunger for details about her private life had not abated. W.T.R. Saffell seized upon the public interest and published The Bonaparte Patterson Marriage, a book based on a large group of letters that had come into the author’s possession. Although Elizabeth had spent most of her life caring deeply about public sentiment, in later years she cared little. In the preface to Saffell’s book he wrote that he contacted “Mde. Bonaparte” about the book and she told him, “the publication of the volume was a matter of perfect indifference to her.”

Even today, “people are talking” about Elizabeth and, I suspect, they will never stop. As Lady Sydney Morgan, her friend, remarked, “there is about her a perpetual curiosity and romance.” Just as Elizabeth often wrote “true” in the margins of her books when she agreed with what she read, I say, “true,” to Lady Morgan’s sentiment.

Jérôme – The Bigamist

Jerome Bonaparte, King of Westphalia, After Jean-Baptiste Isabey, Gift of Mrs. Charles J. Bonaparte, XX.5.67

By Heather Haggstrom, Exhibitions Manager

Back in Baltimore at her father’s house, Elizabeth awaited word from Jérôme. Although he dictated to her to live as if he was returning at any moment, his brother Napoléon was making grand plans for Jérôme. Now that his brother’s marriage had been annulled by the French ecclesiastical court, Napoléon wasted no time arranging an “appropriate” union for Jérôme that would suit his political needs. In July of 1807, the emperor created Westphalia, a new nation consisting of Prussian territories and declared Jérôme “King of Westphalia.”

Along with the title came a new bride: Princess Frederika Catherine Sophia Dorthea of Württemberg. At first Catherine appeared to be cold and haughty, but it became apparent after her first meeting with Jérôme that her off-putting demeanor was more fear than personality. Princess Catherine was young and had left everything familiar to her in preparation for the marriage. Napoléon sent away her attendants and replaced them with French attendants of his choosing.

Their first meeting lacked the spark of Jérôme’s courtship with Elizabeth and he showed no signs of happiness about his marriage. At the end of their meeting he declared “My brother [Napoléon] is waiting for us; I will no longer deprive him of the pleasure of making acquaintance with the new sister I am about to give him.” It was obvious to everyone, and probably also to his new bride that Jérôme was still madly in love with Elizabeth. In a letter to his brother Lucien shortly after the second wedding Jérôme wrote, “You know the feelings of my heart and you know the well-being and benefit of my family alone forced me to make other ties.” Others who met Jérôme after the marriage remarked that he still spoke of Elizabeth with fondness.

Despite Jérôme’s proclamations that he still loved Elizabeth, she remained “abandoned.” Elizabeth was left to read about his European marriage in the newspapers. In July of 1808, Jérôme asked Elizabeth to send Jerome Napoleon (“Bo”), his son, to him. After Elizabeth turned down his first proposed arrangement, he wrote to her that he wanted to take care of her and Bo. He offered Elizabeth a small kingdom near Kassel where he lived, the titles of “Prince” and “Princess” for her and Bo, a beautiful home, and a yearly income of F 200,000. In return he asked to see his son twice a year until he turned twelve at which time Bo would go to live with him. After Jérôme’s abandonment of her and his quick marriage to Princess Catherine just ten months after the annulment, the choice for Elizabeth was quite clear: she would not, and could not, depend on Jérôme for her happiness and well-being. She accepted Napoléon’s offer of F 60,000 a year, a future with her son and independence. Elizabeth knew that Napoléon, despite all that had happened, was a man of his word and that the money he offered would help her reestablish her place in society and secure legitimacy and a future for her son.

With everything that had transpired over the years between Elizabeth and Jérôme it is easy to see why she became angry and bitter towards him. Throughout her life-long writings she often referred to Jérôme as “The Bigamist” and was quite harsh towards him. One cannot really blame her after all she had endured. To be fair to Jérôme, however, he did truly love Elizabeth and his son. He wanted to make things right but because of his brother’s political schemes and the social rules of the 1800s, it wasn’t solely Jérôme’s decision. The story of Elizabeth and Jérôme reads almost like a Shakespearian tragedy: a chance happening, a tragic hero with a tragic flaw, internal and external conflicts, and perhaps a bit of revenge.