The Guardian, UK
Portrait mistaken for 18th-century lady is early painting of transvestite
National Portrait Gallery in London buys portrait of celebrated
diplomat, soldier and cross-dresser Chevalier d'Eon
Mark Brown, arts correspondent
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 6 June 2012 10.16 EDT
[Photo: A detail from the Chevalier d'Eon by Thomas Stewart, bought by
the National Portrait Gallery. Photograph: National Portrait Gallery,
It was the five o'clock shadow that helped give her away – the
portrait was not, as it seemed, a rather grand if slightly butch
18th-century lady with a fancy feathered hat but was in fact the
Chevalier d'Eon: diplomat, soldier, spy, transvestite.
The National Portrait Gallery <http://www.npg.org.uk/> has announced
the acquisition of its first painted portrait of a man in woman's
clothing; a cross-dresser who enjoyed considerable fame in both high
society and popular culture.
Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont, to
give her full name, is one of the most important transvestites in
history. She was "a fascinating and inspirational figure", said Lucy
Peltz, the gallery's curator of 18th-century portraits.
"We are absolutely delighted to be able to acquire this portrait.
D'Eon is a particularly fascinating and important figure from
18th-century British history."
The painting was discovered by the London dealer Philip Mould
<http://www.philipmould.com/> at a provincial sale outside New York
last year. It was being mistakenly sold as a portrait of an unknown
woman by Gilbert Stuart, most famous for painting George Washington on
the dollar bill.
"Even in its dirty state it was quite clear that this woman had
stubble," said Mould, who bought it, brought it to the UK and began
further research and restoration.
"Cleaning is always a revelation and on this occasion it revealed that
not only was it in lovely condition but, more pertinently, the Gilbert
Stuart signature cleaned off revealing the name Thomas Stewart, a
theatrical painter working in London in the 1780s and 1790s."
Everything then began to click into place. "What is so unusual about
this portrait is that it is so brazenly demonstrative in a period when
you don't normally get that type of alternative persona expressed in
portraiture," said Mould. There is no attempt to soften his
physiognomy – basically, he was a bloke in a dress with a hat."
The discovery was tremendously exciting, said Mould. "We are the main
dealers in British portraiture, doing it for something like 30 years
and I must have sold two or three thousand British portraits to
museums and institutions – but never have I come across something
quite so idiosyncratic. I've never had anything which is so off-beam."
Even without the cross dressing D'Eon is a seriously interesting
person. Before living publicly as a woman he was a famous French
soldier and diplomat who had a key role in negotiating the Peace of
Paris in 1763, ending the seven years war between France and Britain.
After 13 years living in London he was not inclined to return to
Paris, resorting to blackmailing the French crown with a threat to
sell secrets after he was officially recalled.
"He had information about French plans to invade England, despite the
peace that was being negotiated," said Peltz. That led the king, then
Louis XVI, making the highly unusual edict that D'Eon could remain
only if he lived his life as a woman which, at the time, would have
been an enormous disempowerment.
"It was very much due to D'Eon's own encouragement, putting forward
the idea over some period.
"As far as we can tell D'Eon was Britain's first openly transvestite
male who was able to live out the life that his gender orientation
demanded of him – and he was able to get away with it, feted as a
particularly brave and courageous woman."
London society, not particularly known for its liberal tolerance,
accepted D'Eon as a woman and she became well known for fencing
demonstrations in theatres – dressed as a woman, of course.
D'Eon was not the most feminine of transvestites. Aside from the
stubble, she hitched her skirt when she went up stairs and was rather
course and boorish. None of that stopped pioneering feminist writers
including Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft hailing D'Eon as a
shining example of female fortitude, someone women should look at and
The painting is known to be a copy of one exhibited at the Royal
Academy in 1791 by Jean Laurent Mosnier, which is in an aristocratic
collection. The Stewart portrait was probably commissioned by the
libertine Francis Rawdon Hastings, second Earl of Moira and first
Marquess of Hastings.
Interest in D'Eon has seldom waned with biographies every 20 years or
so between the 1830s and 1950s. The Beaumont Society
<http://www.beaumontsociety.org.uk/> , which gives advice to the
transgendered community, was named after D'Eon.
We will never know, of course, if D'Eon was transgender or
transvestite but Peltz said she was clearly extremely courageous.
"The painting sheds fascinating light on gender in history and one of
the reasons the gallery was so keen to acquire the portrait is that
D'Eon is such a fantastically inspirational figure and one of the very
few historical figures that the gallery can represent that is a
positive role model for modern LGBT <http://www.lgbt.co.uk/>
• The portrait is on display in room 15 of the National Portrait Gallery
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