Historical Society Ponders Man in DressKILEY ARMSTRONG , Associated Press
May. 31, 1990 4:48 AM ET
NEW YORK (AP) _ The New-York Historical Society hopes to unravel a centuries-old art enigma: who WAS that guy in the blue dress?
Since 1952, the society has proudly displayed a portrait said to be of Viscount Cornbury, royal governor of the colonies of New York and New Jersey from 1702 to 1708.
Reflecting Lord Cornbury's reputed preference for women's clothing, the subject of the portrait is decked out in a jewel-adorned dress and a lace head covering.
Patricia U. Bonomi, New York University history professor, used to accept historical depictions of Lord Cornbury as a cross-dresser.
But recently, while writing Cornbury's biography, she concluded that the anonymous, undated portrait is not of him. She also believes his political opponents launched a 200-year-old legend by lying about his alleged proclivities.
Philip Davenport-Hines, a fellow of the Royal Historical Society in England, pronounced Bonomi's findings inconclusive. He said he still thinks the portrait accurately depicts Cornbury.
This summer, a graduate student from Columbia University will research the painting for the New-York Historical Society, said Annette Blaugrund, senior curator. The society also hopes to consult Bonomi.
''I think there were questions all the way down the line about the history of the painting,'' said Blaugrund.
The historical society bought it from a British family named Pakington, which kept the work on its estate.
It's not clear when it was painted. But Bonomi determined the work was first alleged in 1796 to depict Lord Cornbury, who died in 1723 after inheriting the higher title of Earl of Clarendon.
''I believe it was done as a serious portrait; it was not meant to be kinky,'' said Blaugrund. ''When you look at it, there's nothing very sexy about this picture.''
A label that was on the frame when it arrived at the society's museum identifies the subject as ''Lord Cornbury, half-witted son of Henry, Lord of Clarendon.''
The viscount was said to receive colonists ''dressed up in complete female court costume because truly, he represented the person of a female sovereign, his cousin, German Queen Anne,'' according to the label.
The portrait and label remain prominently displayed in the museum in New York City.
How do visitors react? ''Some of them stop and giggle. A lot of them just pass it by as being one of our large group of colonial paintings,'' said Blaugrund.
After all, ''a lot of these paintings have both women and men seemingly with 5 o'clock shadows. That's a matter of painting technique, the undercoats coming through, what time does to a certain painting,'' she said. ''And there were some pretty hefty women in their day.''
Blaugrund said that in the case of this painting, ''It's pretty clearly a man. ... He has a man's facial features: a bigger nose, more jowly.''