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Portrait Mistaken for 18th-century Lady is early Painting of Transvestite : RowlandsModernArt.com
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Portrait Mistaken for 18th-century Lady is early Painting of Transvestite

| June 10, 2012 | Comments

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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 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 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 aspire to.

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, 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 audiences.”

The portrait is on display in room 15 of the National Portrait Gallery

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