'Some like it Hot', c.1792
April 16 2012
Picture: Philip Mould
As featured in The Sunday Times yesterday, here's a homegrown discovery for you: the only oil portrait of the Chevalier D'Eon, one of the most famous transvestites in history. He was also a spy, diplomat, soldier and author. This portrait was sold in a minor auction in the USA, where it was catalogued as 'Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in Her Hat'. The giveaway is the medal of the Order of St Louis, which was awarded to D'Eon by Louis XV for his services as a spy in the Secret de Roi. the picture was long thought to be by Gilbert Stuart, but is in fact by the English artist Thomas Stewart.
You can read more about the picture and its history by clicking 'Read on'.
Update: story covered by The Daily Telegraph here.
THOMAS STEWART (b.1766)
Portrait of Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste André Timothée D’Eon de Beaumont, called the Chevalier D’Eon (1728-1810)
Oil on Canvas
29 x 26 ½ inches, 73.7 x 67.2 cm
Signed lower left ‘T. Stewart 1792’
Francis Hastings Rawdon, 2nd Earl of Moira and 1st Marquess of Hastings;
According to a label verso, presented by him to Sir John Macnamara Hayes 1st Bt. (1750?-1809);
Probably by descent from Sir Thomas Pelham Hayes (1794-1851), 2nd Bt.;
Ellen Anne Simonds, daughter of Sir John Warren Hayes, 3rd Bt.;
Collection of Ruth Stone, daughter of Samuel Klein of Klein’s Department Stores, USA, until sold by her estate at Thos. Cornell Galleries Ltd, as ‘Portrait of a Woman with a Feather in her hat’, as attributed to Gilbert Stuart.
Probably John Robins’ catalogue of the pictures and sculptures at Donington Park, Leicestershire, March 1820, lot 115.Lawrence Park, ‘Gilbert Stuart, an Illustrated Descriptive list of his Works’ (New York, 1926), Vol. I, p.278, no.236, ill. Vol. III, p.
This portrait of Charles D’Eon de Beaumont, commonly known as the Chevalier D’Eon, is a rare large-scale likeness in oil of one of the most enigmatic figures of the later 18th Century. Variously a soldier, spy and writer, he is most famously known for being a transvestite, from whom the term ‘eonism’ (the phrase used in psychiatry to describe male adoption of female dress and manners) is derived. Painted in 1792 by the English painter Thomas Stewart, it shows D’Eon in the black silk dress he came to be identified with when staying in England, and which he wore when taking part in his demonstration fencing matches. He is also shown with the order of St Louis, which was presumably seen as his identifying ‘brand’ when wearing female dress since it can be seen in almost all likeness of him, even satirical prints.
Although D’Eon is best known today for his transvestism, he himself may have associated that aspect of his life with failure. While he later claimed that one of his first instances of dressing as a woman was at a ball at Versailles in 1755 where both Madame Pompadour and Louis XV tried to seduce him, it appears that he only took to female dress towards the end of his life, and only then under compulsion after he had failed to convert a promising early career in the army and diplomacy into a life at the heart of French politics.
D’Eon’s career was effectively determined by his involvement in Louis XV’s secret service, called the secret du roi, which he joined in 1755. After a successful initial mission to Russia (and a brief but glorious spell in the army during the Seven Year’s War), D’Eon’s first major posting was to London in 1763, where he worked to secure the continental peace, as well as spy for the King. As a reward for his good service he was given a pension, appointed to the Order of St Louis, and made Minister Plenipotentiary in London, where he became friends with the likes of David Hume and Horace Walpole. However, when another diplomat was soon afterwards appointed to the more senior role of Ambassador in his place, D’Eon became, in the words of one biographer, ‘unhinged’. He claimed that the new Ambassador, Guerchy, had attempted to poison him, and when Louis XV stopped his pension he published a raft of highly damaging confidential documents from his time in the secret.
D’Eon’s publication caused a sensation, but also led to a libel suit from Guerchy. After D’Eon was found guilty by the High Court in London, he absconded, but could only do so by dressing as a woman. Eventually, Louis XV agreed to pay off D’Eon in order to prevent publication of further secret documents. But after Louis XVI succeeded the throne in 1774 D’Eon was forced to agree a new deal in which his pension would be paid, but only if he dressed as a woman – an order made in part, it seems, to help control his tempestuous nature. It appears at this stage that D’Eon was a reluctant transvestite, for although contemporary gossip claimed that he always had been a woman – with bets being made on his true sex – D’Eon himself often attempted to wear male dress, even at one stage (in 1779) being imprisoned for doing so. It appears that he made little attempt to act the part of his new clothing; James Boswell described him in 1786 as appearing ‘like a man in woman’s clothes, like Hecate on the stage.’
By the time of his final return to London in 1785 D’Eon had adopted female dress full-time. He still relied on his masculine side, earning a living in part through demonstration fencing matches. The French Revolution finally ended his sporadic pension from the French government, and for a while he had hopes that he would be able to serve the new regime. But his later years were spent in increasing decline; he spent some time in a debtor’s prison, and even had to sell his precious Order of St Louis. In England, he had become so well known as an energetic woman that there was genuine surprise when he was found, in a posthumous medical examination, have male organs that were ‘in every respect perfectly formed’. His housekeeper, Mrs Cole, apparently did not ‘recover from the shock for many hours.’
Until recently, this portrait of D’Eon was attributed to Gilbert Stuart, and was listed as such in the four volume 1926 catalogue raisonné of Stuart’s work by Lawrence Park. The entry for the picture stated that Gilbert Stuart’s signature and the date 1792 was inscribed on the reverse of the canvas. However, this erroneous attribution may have been caused by a misreading of the original signature on the lower left of the front of the canvas, which, like the rest of the picture, was partly obscured by dirt and old varnish. Conservation undertaken by Philip Mould Ltd has confirmed that the picture is clearly signed ‘T. Stewart’, and that only a canvas stamp by James Poole of 163 High Holborn is to be found on the reverse of the original canvas. Currently, relatively little is known of Thomas Stewart. He entered the Royal Academy schools in 1782, and was awarded a silver medal in 1788. He must have had a fairly successful practice in London in the late 18th Century, for he exhibited some 24 works at the Royal Academy between 1784 and 1801, including a portrait of King George III, the actor John Packer, and the painter George Stubbs (in whose house he stayed between c.1795-7). His only other certainly known portrait today is of the brewer John Lewis (1713-1792), presently in the collection of the London Borough of Richmond’s art collection, the attribution of which is confirmed in a mezzotint of 1793 by Robert Field [National Portrait Gallery]. His relative, a Miss M. Stewart, was a pupil of Stubbs, and exhibited theatrical and historical subjects at the RA between 1791 and 1801.
The Stuart catalogue raisonné states that the picture descended in the collection of the Hayes family, having been given to Sir John Macnamara Hayes (1750?-1809) 1st Bt., a military physician, by Francis Hastings Rawdon, 2nd Earl of Moira and 1st Marquess of Hastings. The presumption is that it was Moira who first commissioned the portrait the Stewart. Moira, an adept soldier who fought in the American War of Independence, and was later Governor-General of India, was a notorious spendthrift with a love of the exotic: he commissioned, for example, a version of Gilbert Stuart’s celebrated portrait of Thayendanega (Joseph Brant) [British Museum]. We certainly know that Moira owned a portrait of D’Eon, for a catalogue of the pictures at Moira’s home, Castle Donnington, drawn up in March 1820 by John Robins [Lugt 9936], lists a portrait of D’Eon which may well be the present work (no artist is given, but the pictures is listed as ¾ size, usually then taken to mean a half-length portrait). There are further possible connections between D’Eon and Moira. Both were freemasons, and as a leading member of the Prince of Wales’ ‘set’ would doubtless have been aware of incidents such as D’Eon’s 1787 fencing match at Carlton House against the Chevalier de Saint-George, a scene recorded by Charles Jean Robineau’s oil painting in the Royal Collection, in which the Prince of Wales can be seen in the background. The French revolutionary tricolour seen pinned onto D’Eon’s hat in the present portrait points not only to D’Eon’s keenness to ingratiate himself with the new regime in Paris, but also to the radical Whig enthusiasm for some of the Revolution’s aims (the portrait was of course painted in 1792, before the outbreak of the Terror). And Moira, as a notably progressive Irish Whig, may well have had some sympathy with D’Eon’s predicament and hoped-for alliance. We know, for example, that Moira spoke against plans to attack Revolutionary France in 1792.
A label on the reverse of the portrait of D’Eon appears to reinforce the claim that the picture was presented by Moira to Macnamara Hayes, who we know served under Moira in the army in the post of director of hospitals in 1793. However, if the present portrait is indeed that listed in the 1820 catalogue of pictures at Donnington (for which it appears that no sale ever took place, the dealer John Smith’s copy of the catalogue states ‘Were not sold’), then it postdates Macnamara Hayes’ death. It may be, therefore, that the portrait was acquired by Macnamara Hayes’ son, Sir Thomas Pelham Hayes (1794-1851), for we know that the Hayes family certainly possessed a number of other portraits from Moira, namely his own portrait by Stuart [Park no. 552, engraved by J. Collyer, whereabouts unknown], and the portrait of Brant by Stuart currently in the British Museum. Park records that the portrait of Moira, like that of Moira and Brant, passed by descent to Ellen Anne Simonds, the daughter of the 3rd Baronet, Sir John Warren Hayes. It is not known when the portrait entered the collection of Mrs Ruth Stone, an American department store heiress, from whose estate it was acquired by this gallery in 2011.