J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Portrait of a Lady Chevalier

The British art dealer Philip Mould saw this portrait in a New York gallery, labeled as “Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in her hat” and attributed to Gilbert Stuart. Scholars last examined it around 1926, but it had not been seen publicly since that decade.

Mould saw something more in the painting, bought it, and brought it to Britain for conservation. Eventually he determined the portrait wasn’t by Stuart, and wasn’t of a woman.

According to the History Blog:
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, but who starting in the 1780s was a successful painter specializing in portraits of actors. Next to the “T. Stewart” signature is the date “1792.” . . .

The cleaning also revealed another telling detail: a noticeable five o’clock shadow on the lady’s face. . . .

[Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont,] the Chevalier d’Eon…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. D’Eon was living in London in 1792, making a living doing demonstration fencing matches, so that fits with the timing and focus of Thomas Stewart’s work.
The Chevalier d’Eon was one of the most famous figures of late-eighteenth-century Europe—a French spy, soldier, and ambassador who fell out with the French monarchy. Having drafted the treaty that ended the Seven Years’ War, he settled in England in the mid-1760s. There D’Eon took to wearing women’s clothing all the time, telling various stories of why he did so. The chevalier’s life thus took him across several delicate boundary lines: male and female; France and Britain; war, espionage, and diplomacy.

As a foreigner of high birth, a recognized eccentric, and a public performer, the chevalier in exile became a British celebrity. Engravers created several images of him for public consumption, but this oil painting is a rare large formal portrait. Stewart evidently created it for Francis Rawdon-Hastings, second Earl of Moira, whom we have met during the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Click on the picture above for a webpage with a larger image of the portrait that includes the chevalier’s medal.


Ben Miller said...

Great find, and post...here's an earlier portrait of the Chevalier d'Eon... definitely looks like the same guy/gal:


J. L. Bell said...

Thanks for that link. It’s one of several that show D’Eon as a middle-aged woman, sometimes paired with images of him dressed conventionally as a man.

The Stewart painting is interesting, I think, because its gender signs are more ambiguous. The hat is not a bonnet, the throat is not hidden. It seems to show D’Eon not as a woman but as a transvestite man.