IT was the five o’clock shadow that gave it away. When London dealer Philip Mould spotted this 18th century portrait in a general paintings sale at the New York auctioneers Thomas Cornell Galleries in November last year, he thought it to be of a rather masculine middle-aged lady.
So did the auctioneers, who catalogued the
oil on canvas, which was part of the collection of Ruth Stone,
daughter of Samuel Klein of Klein's Department Stores, as 'Portrait
of a Woman with a Feather in her hat' and attributed it to Gilbert
Having done some research before the sale,
which suggested all was not as it seemed, Mr Mould bought the
painting and, upon cleaning it, found definite hints of stubble
around the face.
"This fuelled further investigation that
resulted in the astonishing discovery that the portrait is of the
legendary spy, diplomat and transvestite Chevalier D'Eon that has
been lost since 1926," he explained.
The French-born D'Eon (1728-1810) is known
as the "Patron Saint of Transvestites" and the term "eonism",
meaning cross-dressing and cross-sexuality, derives from him.
This is thought to be the earliest surviving
formal portrait of a male transvestite, and research undertaken
since by the gallery has attributed the work to the theatrical
artist Thomas Stewart (b.1766), who specialised in painting actors
and theatrical scenes in London in the 1790s - the same time as
D'Eon was performing on stage as a fencer in drag.
The painting was almost certainly
commissioned by the Earl of Moira, an 18th century Irish soldier,
playwright and patron of the arts, and passed through his family
till the 1850s when it was given to George III's ex-doctor -
possibly as a mark of its medical curiosity. Descendants of the
doctor sold it to an American collector at the beginning of last
century, after which it apparently vanished.
According to Mr Mould, it is now "under
serious consideration" by the National Portrait Gallery in London
for an undisclosed price. Should they decide to purchase the work,
it will represent the gallery's first oil painting of a
cross-dresser in guise.