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Britain's first celebrity transvestite...Rare painting acquired by National Portrait Gallery
Chevalier d’Eon by Thomas Stewart, 1792 © National Portrait Gallery, London.

LONDON.- The National Portrait Gallery has acquired its first painted portrait of a male transvestite in women’s clothing. Painted in 1792, it depicts Britain’s first celebrated male cross-dresser.

Lost since 1926, this painting of the Chevalier d’Eon, an eighteenth-century diplomat, is on show at the Gallery for the first time today, Wed 6 June 2012. Following its discovery by the gallery owner Philip Mould, this will be its first period of public display.

Chevalier d’Eon lived in London from 1762-1777 as a man, and from 1785-1810 as a woman and, during both periods, he enjoyed considerable fame in international politics, high society and popular culture.

No transvestite or transsexual, until the late twentieth century has enjoyed such public recognition, acceptance and popular affection. The portrait is seen as an unprecedented historic document of his identity and acceptance into British society at a time when men who were caught wearing women’s clothing were viciously persecuted.

Long before he lived publicly as a woman, d’Eon was feted as a famous soldier, champion fencer and diplomat who negotiated the Peace of Paris in 1763. Having lived in England for 13 years he refused to return to France when recalled, blackmailing the French crown with threats to sell French government secrets to the British.

Painted at the height of his fame, it shows d’Eon wearing the full cockade of a supporter of the French Revolution at a time when d’Eon was trying to court the new Revolutionary government with the promise of leading an army of women soldiers against their enemies. Such depictions of support for the Revolution are mirrored by few other works in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.

This signed and dated painting by Thomas Stewart, is a copy of one exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791 by Jean Laurent Mosnier. Stewart’s portrait was probably commissioned by Francis Rawdon Hastings, 2nd Earl of Moira and 1st Marquess of Hastings, who was a libertine and dandy with a taste for portraits of exotic subjects. It would have been painted at the same time d’Eon was a popular celebrity renowned for his demonstration fencing routines which he performed in women’s attire.

Interest in d’Eon has never waned with a new biography appearing approximately every 20 years between the 1830s and the 1950s. In 1928, Havelock Ellis coined the term ‘Eonism’ to describe transvestism and this remained in use until the 1960s. In the last 30 years, with the development of the academic discipline of Queer Studies research into d’Eon has never been more energetic. The Beaumont Society (which is named after the Chevalier d’Eon de Beaumont) was formed in 1966 to offer advice to the transgendered community. Today it is the largest and longest-established group to give support of this kind.

While there are photographs in the Gallery’s Collection of Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry they are not shown in female attire and so, with the exception of photographs of performers as their stage personas such as Paul O’ Grady as Lily Savage and Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage, the newly acquired painting can be seen as a first for the Gallery of a male transvestite wearing women’s clothing.

Dr Lucy Peltz, Curator of Eighteenth Century Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘The Chevalier d’Eon was a figure of international fame and notoriety in the eighteenth century, for his military, diplomatic and social exploits. But it is his courage in following his gender orientation in the face of the severest penalties that make this portrait one of the most inspiring and fascinating images’.

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