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

Known as 'the Notorious Belle of Baltimore,' socialite and landowner Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte was an important female figure in 1812 society


BALTIMORE - The Maryland Historical Society presents "Woman of Two Worlds:" Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy, an exhibition that brings 1812 Baltimore vividly to life.


Portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, George D'Almaine after Gilbert Stuart, 1856, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.78
Portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, George D'Almaine after Gilbert Stuart, 1856, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.78

With hundreds of objects and reams of documents, the Maryland Historical Society is the official keeper of Elizabeth's memories. On view now and extended indefinitely, 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 Dramatic Life of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte


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 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 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 Jerome Bonaparte

Jerome Bonaparte was an officer in the French Navy. Unlike his serious-minded brother, Napoleon, Jerome preferred to study girls and to spend his brother’s money. He served in the Caribbean in the early 1800s, and when war broke out, fled to the U.S. to avoid capture from the British. Once there, he lived lavishly, wearing the finest clothes, living in the best rooms, and attending balls. Determined to see the “most beautiful woman in America,” Jerome met Elizabeth and set his mind to marrying her. For Jerome, it was a coup de foudre, love at first sight.


About Their Marriage


The two young lovers were married in 1803 by John Carroll, the Archbishop of Baltimore – but all were not celebrating the union. They met with strong resistance from Elizabeth’s father, William Patterson, and Jerome’s brother, the future ruler of France, Napoleon Bonaparte. Upset with his headstrong daughter, William eventually only left Elizabeth a pittance of his substantial estate. Napoleon ordered his brother back to France immediately, and forbade Elizabeth from entering French soil or ever using the Bonaparte name. Jerome was told he must give up Elizabeth or be stripped of all his titles and left without a cent. Despite his proclamations of love, he followed his brother’s orders.


Elizabeth spent the rest of her life trying to secure the imperial title for herself and the son she had with Jerome Bonaparte, whom she nicknamed “Bo.” She returned to Baltimore but often travelled to Europe and was frequently sought after by the upper echelons of both American and European society. First Lady Dolley Madison, for example, asked Elizabeth to pick her up something on one of her travels “in case you meet with anything elegant in the form of a turban or an evening wrap of flowered lace in gold or silver thread.” Irish-born Lady Sydney Morgan, one of the 19th century’s greatest feminist writers, remained one of Elizabeth’s closest confidents throughout her lifetime. Calling cards and invitations attest to Elizabeth’s popularity and allure wherever she went.


Elizabeth lived in Baltimore on and off until her death in 1879. She transformed the annuity from Napoleon into a significant fortune that eventually included over $1 million and interests in more than forty houses throughout Baltimore. She became one of the city’s wealthiest female landowners as a result. Elizabeth truly was the “Notorious Belle of Baltimore,” and is regarded today as one of the country’s most fascinating early celebrities.


About the Exhibition

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.


"This exhibit and its fascinating story give visitors an opportunity to see the War of 1812 era in a much larger context," says Burt Kummerow, President of the Maryland Historical Society, "Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte brought Napoleonic Europe to Baltimore along with the celebrity that reminds us of a modern day jet setter."


"Few historical figures I have studied intrigue me as much as Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte," says Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch. "Every time I read her letters and account books I discover another twist in her very complex story. Too often she has been remembered for her marriage, but in fact, her relationship with Jerome Bonaparte only lasted three years. She went on to live another seven decades, charting her own course, amassing her own fortune and making a life on her own terms. Elizabeth's story transcends time because it is the story of a strong-minded woman who shaped her own destiny despite the limitations society and her family tried to impose on her."


We are deeply grateful to the many funders who have made this project possible, including The Von Hess Foundation.


Related Collaborations

During the War of 1812 Bicentennial, we are partnering with Ft. McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, the Maryland 1812 Bicentennial Commission and the Baltimore National Heritage Area. One of the lifelong learning programs associated with the Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte exhibit will be an exploration of 1812 fashion in partnership with the Baltimore National Heritage Area Education Committee and the Baltimore Fashion Alliance in November 2013.



Online Resources

For a sneak peek into Elizabeth's life, and the fascinating behind-the-scenes-details of the exhibition making process, Chief Curator Alexandra Deutsch has started a blog entitled "Woman of Two Worlds." You can access it by visiting this link: www.mdhs.org/betsy-bonaparte




A 32 page issue of MdHS News, comprising essays on the life and family of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and her tremendous collection of silver, accompanies exhibition. Published by The Maryland Historical Society, it's free for all who visit the exhibition.




Museum hours are Wednesday through Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. General admission to the Maryland Historical Society is $9 for adults, $5 for seniors, $4 for students and children ages 3-18 and free for children under 3. For more information, visit www.mdhs.org 




Silver Tureen marked by Samuel Kirk, circa 1831, Maryland Historical Society, Bequest of Marie Louise Marquesa de Pozo Rubio, 1983.6 a-b

Portrait of Jerome Napoleon Bonaparte by Francesco Emanuele Scotto, circa 1806, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.52

Portrait of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, George D'Almaine after Gilbert Stuart, 1856, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.78

Garnet Tiara worn by Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte, circa 1803-5, Maryland Historical Society, Gift of Mrs. Charles Joseph Bonaparte, xx.5.295



About The Maryland Historical Society

Founded in 1844, The Maryland Historical Society Museum and Library occupies an entire city block in the Mount Vernon district of Baltimore. The society's mission is to "collect, preserve, and interpret the objects and materials that reflect Maryland's diverse cultural heritage." The Society is home to the original manuscript of the Star-Spangled Banner and publishes a quarterly titled "Maryland Historical Magazine." Visit www.mdhs.org. 


For more information, contact Marketing Director Laura Rodini at 410-685-3750 Ext. 322 or [email protected].