Chevalier d'Eon by Thomas Stewart - Portrait of 18th Century Transvestite

by KathleenDuffy

A compelling portrait of a man in women's clothing has been purchased by the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Her benign, relaxed pose belies her life which was full of incident, daring and intrigue making her one of the most important transvestites in history.

Her life, both as male and female, was full of incident and courage and, although a native of France, far from being rejected by English high society, she was embraced, accepted and admired.

Chevalier d'Eon
Chevalier d'Eon

This portrait was purchased from the United States in 2011 and put on display at the National Portrait Gallery in June 2012. At first it was thought to be a portrait of a man, but cleaning has revealed the subject to be Chevalier d'Eon, a cross-dressing French soldier and diplomat.

Born in Tonnerre, France in 1728, her full name was Charles Geneviéve Louis Auguste André Timothée d’Eon de Beaumont and before living publically as a woman, he was a dedicated soldier in the French army. He had an important role in bringing the Seven Years' War between France and Britain to a conclusion through the Peace of Paris in 1763. Up to this point he was not living publicly as a woman.

Chevalier d'Eon - Accepted by English Society

But this was all to change. He had spent thirteen years as a diplomat in London and had no desire to return to France. Obviously London life suited him well because so desperate was he to remain that he threatened to sell his French diplomatic secrets to the English.

Cheval d'Eon

Louis XVI, probably thinking that he would pull a fast one on d'Eon, announced that his cross-dressing diplomat could stay in England, but only if he lived his life completely as a woman.

chevalier d'Eon

 

To all intents and purposes, this should have been a blow to d'Eon because it would mean a complete surrender of his male identity in public with all the attributes of honour and status that went with such a role at that time in history.

Chevalier d'Eon - The Courageous Transvestite

However, d'Eon embraced the challenge, becoming, as far as is known, the first transvestite in Britain to live a public life as a woman. Not only did London society accept d'Eon as a woman, but d'Eon herself displayed her talents as a fencer at various theatres dressed in female attire.

Chevalier d'Eon fencing in women's dress
Chevalier d'Eon fencing in women's dress

Chevalier d'Eon's courage was acknowledged by feminists of the day like Mary Wollstonecraft. She was such a courageous figure that the famous Beaumont Society, which exists to support the transgendered community, is named after her.

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See Chevalier d'Eon at London's National Portrait Gallery

The beauty of this portrait is that, as Mark Brown, Arts Correspondent to The Guardian has pointed out ('That's no lady: it's a dashing 18th-century cross-dresser', 7 June 2012) the artist has made no attempt to hide the fact that this is a man dressed as a woman. The face is a little jowly, with the hint of a five o'clock shadow.

Go and see d'Eon if you can. She's in Room 15 of the National Portrait Gallery in London, gazing calmly and a little triumphantly out at us all from a time in history which may not be as far away as we think.

You can find out about opening times, etc. at The National Portrait Gallery's website.

 

Copyright: Kathleen Duffy

 

Updated: 06/14/2013, KathleenDuffy
 
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KathleenDuffy on 03/10/2013

Jo - Yes, isn't s/he a great character! ! I went to see the pic the other day at the NPG. Really worth looking at.

JoHarrington on 03/10/2013

This is an amazing story. I knew nothing about him!

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