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The Bathers

"The Bathers" is copyright  ©  1998 by James G. Mundie. All rights reserved.  Reproduction prohibited.

Pen and ink, 9 x 7 inches, 1998
Collection of Geoffrey Hindle

The subjects of this portrait are Chang & Eng Bunker, the original “Siamese Twins”. Chang & Eng were born in 1811 to Chinese parents in Siam, which is now known as Thailand. As babies, the twins escaped a death sentence imposed upon them by King Rama II, who believed their birth was an ill omen. The twins later gained sufficient royal favor to serve as ambassador to Cochin China, the French colony in what is now Vietnam, for Rama II's successor. Chang & Eng were brought to Boston by enterprising American sea captain Abel Coffin in 1829, and proceeded to exhibit themselves in the United States and Europe for many years before retiring as wealthy slave-owning planters in ante-bellum North Carolina. The twins became naturalized American citizens, adopted the surname Bunker, married a pair of sisters, and proceeded to father twenty-one children between them. Financially ruined in the wake of the Civil War, the twins returned to show business to regain the fortune they had lost.

Conjoined twins inspire a particular fascination, which I believe is due in part to one's notions of privacy. It is the salacious details that interest people most. “How do they use the rest room?” and like questions are foremost, because for conjoined twins every mundane bodily function or private romantic encounter is a group effort. This is especially so in the case of Chang & Eng.

The inspiration for this portrait was two-fold: that delightful painting attributed to the School of Fontainebleau, called Portrait of the Beautiful Gabrielle and the Maréchale de Balagny or Gabrielle d'Estrées and Her Sister; and the plaster death cast of Chang & Eng housed at the Mütter Museum of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia. So, here we have Chang & Eng sharing a private moment — or close as they can get to privacy — in the tub. Just as with those enigmatic French sisters, Eng is playfully tweaking his sibling's nipple; yet despite the high spirits, both wear the mournful expression they invariably presented for the camera.

An early newspaper advertisement for the Siamese Twins may be seen here.

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All Images and Text © James G. Mundie 2003 - 2018