Portrait of Chevalier D’Éon — Diplomat, Spy, and Transvestite

Posted in Art Market by Editor on April 17, 2012

News from Philip Mould of a painting that’s reportedly attracted the attention of the National Portrait Gallery in London. The portrait is on display in London this week (16-20 April 2012). From Artdaily.com:

Thomas Stewart, "Portrait of Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste André Timothée D’Éon de Beaumont, called the Chevalier D’Éon," 1792

The earliest surviving formal portrait of a male transvestite has been discovered by Philip Mould in a New York saleroom. On first glance the historic portrait featuring a rather masculine looking woman piqued the renowned art sleuth’s interest. A gentle clean and further painstaking research uncovered a rich and colourful history. “The eighteenth-century portrait appeared to be of a somewhat manly middle-aged lady. Research before the sale suggested otherwise, and upon cleaning, the face revealed a distinctive 5 0’clock shadow. This fuelled further investigation that resulted in the astonishing discovery that the portrait is of the legendary spy, diplomat and transvestite, Chevalier D’Éon that has been lost since 1926. The painting is now “under serious consideration” by the National Portrait Gallery, London. Should it be purchased will represent the gallery’s first oil painting of a cross-dresser in guise. “The story of D’Éon is one of the more remarkable biographies of the eighteenth century. The recent rediscovery of this lost and only oil portrait should dramatically reawaken his historical significance,” adds Philip Mould.

The picture will be on display at Philip Mould & Company, 29 Dover St from Monday 16th – Friday 20th April 2012 (excluding Wednesday morning). Although some line engravings and satirical prints survive, until the re-discovery of this lost portrait last year no illuminating portrait of D’Éon was known to survive. The painting emerged, fittingly for the sitter, as Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in Her Hat, as attributed to Gilbert Stuart, as part of a general antique paintings auction a Thos. Cornell Galleries Ltd, New York, in November last year. It was part of the collection of Ruth Stone, daughter of Samuel Klein of Klein’s Department Stores, USA. Research undertaken by Philip Mould Ltd has since proved that the picture is by the theatrical artist called Thomas Stewart who specialised in painting actors and theatrical scenes in London in the 1790s – the same time as D’Éon was performing on stage as a fencer in drag.

D’Éon is known as the ‘Patron Saint of Transvestites’ and the word “eonism” meaning cross dressing and cross-sexuality derives from him. D’Éon was the son of middle class, provincial French parents and having excelled at school in 1756 the brilliant graduate was recruited by the top-secret network of spies called Le Secret du Roi, which worked personally for King Louis XV. The monarch sent D’Éon on a secret mission to Russia in order to meet Empress Elizabeth and intrigue with the pro-French faction against the Habsburgs. Later tales claim that D’Éon disguised herself as a lady to do so, and even became a maid of honour to the Empress. In 1763, having spent a heroic spell in the French dragoon guards where he distinguished himself as a master fencer, D’Éon was sent by Louis to London with the title Special Ambassador from France. His true mission was to spy for the king and collect information for a potential invasion – an initiative of which Louis’s ministers were unaware. Despite remaining private documents that prove he was buying female corsets, at this stage D’Éon kept his transvestite proclivities clandestine. After a year, D’Éon was replaced as ambassador by the aristocratic Count of Guerchy. Furious and humiliated by being reduced to his former rank as secretary, D’Éon decided to disobey orders to return to France, claiming that the new ambassador had tried to murder him. In an effort to save his position in London, D’Éon published most of the secret diplomatic correspondence. This breach of diplomatic protocol was unprecedented and scandalous, but D’Éon was careful to keep back from publication the King’s secret invasion documents and those relative to the Secret du Roi as ‘insurance’. With the invasion documents in hand, D’Éon held the king in check, and continued to work as a spy. But he could not return to France. At this point D’Éon began to dress publicly as a woman, the motives for which are not entirely clear, and a betting pool was started on the London Stock Exchange about his true sex. Observers described him as elaborately attired as a woman, but with masculine traits such as stubble and a tendency to hitch his skirts up when climbing stairs – all characteristics which have become more comprehensible since the emergence of the lost portrait. He was noted for his great intelligence and intellect but also his boorish lack of female charms. . .

The full article is available here»

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