A burly dame in a black dress and flamboyant feathered hat gazes enigmatically out of the canvas. But the shadow of stubble on her face hints that all is not as it appears. The painting, recently purchased by London’s National Portrait Gallery, depicts the Chevalier Charles d’Eon de Beaumont, a celebrated French spy, diplomat, fencing champion, and cross-dresser.
“We strongly believe this portrait and the other one—it’s one of two versions—of the Chevalier d’Eon is the first oil portrait of a male transvestite, certainly in Britain,” says Lucy Peltz, the gallery’s curator of 18th-century portraits.
The 30-by-25-inch painting was discovered last November in a salesroom in upstate New York by art dealer Philip Mould, whose curiosity was piqued by the sitter’s manly traits, a jarring deviation from the more flattering portraiture of the era. “It was clearly a subject of pronounced masculine physiognomy but in a dress with a female wig,” Mould says.
Research and cleaning found the portrait’s signature to have been wrongly attributed to Gilbert Stuart, the renowned American painter of George Washington, rather than British artist Thomas Stewart, who painted it in 1792. The piece, Mould explains, had been missing since 1926 and was likely commissioned by the nobleman Francis Rawdon-Hastings after a similar portrait by French painter Jean-Laurent Mosnier, which was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791 and remains in a private collection in England.
The National Portrait Gallery purchased the Stewart painting for £45,600 (around $71,400), Peltz says, and considers it an important historical record for Britain and for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community, which has few early representatives in the gallery’s collection. (Its earliest formal portraits of cross-dressers are from the 20th century.)
Born into minor French nobility, d’Eon—whose name gives us the psychiatric term “eonism” for male cross-dressing—was sent to London in 1762, ostensibly to negotiate peace in the Seven Years War between France and Britain while under secret orders from King Louis XV to look for possible invasion routes. He resisted recall orders, had a public spat with the French ambassador (whom he accused of trying to murder him), and blackmailed the French crown with threats to sell state secrets to Britain. D’Eon eventually struck a bizarre deal with France, whereby his debts were paid off on condition he adopt female dress. After a period back home, he returned to England in 1785 as a woman, where he was feted by fashionable society and earned money through fencing displays until his death in 1810.
Painted at the height of the French Revolution, the portrait reflects d’Eon’s quintessential ambivalence. Dressed in the gown he wore for fencing, d’Eon has on his cherished Croix de Saint Louis badge, awarded by Louis XV, together with a revolutionary cockade on his hat.
Feminist writers of the period hailed d’Eon as an inspiration to women, but not everyone was convinced. Frenzied betting about his gender led to a law forbidding wagers on a person’s sex to protect one’s dignity. An autopsy after his death erased all doubts, proving d’Eon to be anatomically male.