29 April 2012

The lost portrait of the Chevalier d'Eon

As reported in The History Blog:
British art dealer and art detective Philip Mould... came across an arresting portrait of what appeared to be a rather masculine middle-aged woman. Named “Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in her hat” and attributed to painter Gilbert Stuart...

A thorough cleaning revealed that the artist was not Gilbert Stuart... Old varnish and dirt had obscured the signature of the real artist: Thomas Stewart, an 18th century English painter who is not very well known today...

The cleaning also revealed another telling detail: a noticeable five o’clock shadow on the lady’s face. Moira is known to have owned a portrait of the Chevalier d’Eon, and the Chevalier was known to always wear a black dress and the medal of the Order of St. Louis, which he had been awarded by Louis XV for his work as a spy...

Connecting all the dots points to this portrait being of Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste André Timothée D’Eon de Beaumont, aka the Chevalier D’Eon, a biological male who spent his first 49 years dressed as a man, fighting in the Seven Years’ War, fomenting political intrigue as part of Le Secret du Roi, King Louis XV’s personal secret spy network, and serving as Minister Plenipotentiary in London in 1763....

By the time he returned to England permanently in 1785, he was wearing women’s clothes full time. According to witnesses, he made no attempt to adopt feminine mannerisms. He hiked up his dress to run up stairs and fenced with manly vigor. Yet, the question of his sex was widely debated in society at the time....

When he was examined by a physician after his death in 1810, many people were shocked that his genitals were found to be intact and entirely male. The Chevalier d’Eon was so strongly associated with gender ambiguity that psychologist and researcher Havelock Ellis coined the term “eonism” to describe cross-dressing and other transgender behaviors...

Although prints of the Chevalier in a black dress wearing the Order of St. Louis medal are extant, this portrait is the only known oil painting of him. It may be the first formal portrait of a cross-dressing man wearing women’s clothing.


  1. I can only assume the OP meant: "a biological male who spent his first 49 years dressed as a woman" because otherwise it makes very little sense. Too cool though!

    1. Why wouldn't that make sense? The original link says he spent his first 49 years dressed as a man, then after the king died he started dressing as a woman.

    2. Maybe I just need more coffee. Went and reread your link, and read the wikipedia on the Chevalier, and I still don't understand when he began dressing as a woman. Especially because the wiki refers to the Chevalier as "her" at all times - I understand why, but it doesn't make the situation any clearer. Anyway, I think you're right and (s)he did spend (most) of the first 49 years dressed as a man.

  2. Max? Max Klinger, is that you?

  3. A portrait of Lord Cornbury--Governor of the New York colony from 1701-1708 (and also a notable cross-dresser) is in the New York Historical Society's collection.

    Here's some background on him--from outhistory.org:

    Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury (1661-1723)
    "that peculiar but detestable magot"

    Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon (November 28, 1661 – March 31, 1723), styled Viscount Cornbury between 1674 and 1709, was Governor of New York and New Jersey between 1701 and 1708. He is known for the claims that he dressed in women's clothes while serving as Governor (allegations that are contested by historians).Three American colonists, all members of a faction opposed to Edward Hyde, Lord Cornbury, wrote four letters between 1707 and 1709 discussing a rumor that Cornbury wore women's clothes.One of the colonists, Lewis Morris, a bitter political foe of Cornbury, wrote to New York's secretary of state. Morris noted that Governor Cornbury had acquired the habit of dressing in women's clothes, and testified to the good character of a suggested replacement.Here is what Morris actually wrote on February 9, 1707 of Cornbury's suggested replacement:He is an honest man and the reverse of my Lord Cornbury; of whom I must say something which perhaps nobody will think worth their while to tell, and that is, his dressing publicly in woman's clothes every day, and putting a stop to all public business while he is pleasing himself with that peculiar but detestable magot [caprice].Cornbury is said to have delivered a "flowery panegyric on his wife's ears" after which he invited every gentleman present to feel precisely how shell-like they were; to have misappropriated £1500 meant for the defense of New York Harbor, and, scandalously, to have dressed in women's clothing and lurked "behind trees to pounce, shrieking with laughter, on his victims".Cornbury is also reported to have opened the 1702 New York Assembly clad in a hooped gown and an elaborate headdress and carrying a fan, imitative of the style of Queen Anne. When his choice of clothing was questioned, he replied, "You are all very stupid people not to see the propriety of it all. In this place and occasion, I represent a woman (the Queen), and in all respects I ought to represent her as faithfully as I can." It is also said that in August, 1707, when his wife Lady Cornbury died, His High Mightiness (as he preferred to be called) attended the funeral again dressed as a woman. It was shortly after this that mounting complaints from colonists prompted the Queen to remove Cornbury from office.Later historians characterize him as a "degenerate and pervert who is said to have spent half of his time dressed in women's clothes", a "fop and a wastrel".In 1901, H. G. Ashmead wrote of Cornbury's cross-dressing:When maudlingly drunk it was a common pastime with his lordship— forgetful of his age and the office he held—to attire himself in quilted petticoats, panier hoopes and the other accessories of dress then worn by women of fashion, and thus arrayed to premenade Broadway. Woe betide the unfortunate watchman who placed his hand upon the sacred person of the Governor, who reeled along the sidewalk, believing that he was then satirizing the extravagances and absurdities in dress of the other sex. Certain it is, he afforded amusement for the children, who trooped after him, until his lordship would return to the fort and be shut in from the gaze of the vulgar herd.[5]


  4. I've never laughed so much while learning so much :)


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