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England’s pioneering 18th century transvestite gets her due


 
Holy Quentin Crisp, Batman! An extraordinary, and historically significant portrait of Chevalier d’Eon, Britain’s first openly transvestite male, by painter Thomas Stewart, has been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery and is currently hanging in room 15 of the London museum. From The Guardian:

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.”

The Beaumont Society, which caters to the transgendered community, was named after D’Eon.

“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.” said curator Pelz.

Read more about the Chevalier d’Eonat at The Guardian

Posted by Richard Metzger | Leave a comment