Historical Society explores scandalous legacy of Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte

Yearlong exhibit looks into Baltimore beauty's tumultuous, three-year royal marriage, and the six decades that followed until her death at age 94

June 10, 2013|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

The small wooden trunk is covered with red leather, painted with an ocher floral embroidery and studded with brass nails — and it couldn't have announced its owner's intention more clearly.

The 19-year-old Baltimore beauty who packed the trunk with her books and with a black lace mantilla wasn't planning to merely travel between two continents. She was determined to conquer them.

On one side of the trunk, plain and simple, is stenciled her birth name, "Elizabeth Patterson." But on the other side, not one, but two labels declare the trunk to be the property of "Madame Bonaparte, nee Patterson."

Never mind that her imperious brother-in-law, Napoleon Bonaparte, had ordered her marriage to his youngest brother annulled. As Elizabeth's father, William Patterson, might have warned the soon-to-be-crowned emperor, he had no idea who he was tangling with.

"The trunk is a symbol of Elizabeth's nomadic life between two worlds," says Alexandra Deutsch, curator of "A Woman of Two Worlds: Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte and Her Quest for an Imperial Legacy."

"She traveled back and forth between Baltimore and Europe eight times. With this trunk, it's almost like she was deliberately talking about her two identities."

The exhibit, which opens today and runs for a year at the Maryland Historical Society, doesn't merely explore Elizabeth's brief, tumultuous marriage to Jerome Bonaparte, which lasted for less than three years, from 1803 to 1806. The exhibit also covers the six decades that followed Jerome's desertion of his wife and the birth of the couple's son.

For instance, Madame Bonaparte's opponents drafted — and came within a hair's breadth of passing — a new amendment to the U.S. Constitution designed to strip her of either her citizenship or her pretensions to nobility. She invested in real estate, amassing a fortune that at her death in 1879 at the age of 94 would amount to between $10 million and $15 million in 2013 dollars. And she never for one moment stopped in her tireless efforts to secure an imperial title, first for her son and then for her grandsons.

"Elizabeth was by far one of the most fascinating women of the early 19th century," says Charlene Boyer Lewis, a history professor at Michigan's Kalamazoo College and the author of the 2012 biography, "Elizabeth Patterson Bonaparte: An American Aristocrat in the Early Republic."

"Elizabeth became one of America's first celebrities at a crucial time in our nation's history," Boyer Lewis says. "She was at the center of the debate over society and culture in the new republic."

The exhibit was planned to run concurrent with War of 1812 bicentennial celebrations. The show consists of about 130 artifacts, including silver, porcelain, paintings, textiles, jewelry, manuscripts and furniture associated with Elizabeth and her descendants. Many haven't been on display in nearly 40 years.

Among them are two tiaras — one that Elizabeth wore during her marriage that was set with garnets, and a second dating from the 1820s that's adorned with seed pearls, amethysts and enamel.

The show also includes a white dress in the European style that scandalized American society with its low neckline, short sleeves and absence of stiff undergarments.

"This was the first time that a woman's figure could be seen without the armature of petticoats that were designed to keep a woman's dress away from her legs," Deutsch says. "For the first time, men could look at women in public and see their hips. They could see how they moved and where their legs separated. It seems tame by today's standards. But in the 19th century, it was considered very titillating."

The highlight of the exhibit is a portrait by American master Gilbert Stuart in which he painted the young Elizabeth's head and shoulders from three poses. In the center portrait, she faces the viewer straight on. Behind that figure's right shoulder, a second head peeps out, glancing at onlookers and appearing mildly amused. The third figure is in profile.

Interestingly, Stuart doesn't depict his subject's famously curvy figure, with its 19-inch waist and 35-inch bosom.

"She was widely considered as the most beautiful woman in America," Deutsch says.

It's not certain how Elizabeth first met the dashing Jerome Bonaparte in 1803. But once they said hello, what happened next seemed inevitable.

Both were young, headstrong, reckless and spoiled. Though Elizabeth already lived the life of a pampered princess — her father, the Irish-born merchant William Patterson, was the second-richest man in Maryland — she was chafing to leave her hometown. She considered Baltimore boring and provincial, despite its status as the third-largest city in the United States.

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