Meeting the Chevalier d’Éon

By Joseph Litts, WPAMC class of 2020

During our run through England, I used part of my free afternoon to visit the National Portrait Gallery in London. One of my favorite aspects of wandering through such quasi-encyclopedic collections is discovering art—and stories—I didn’t previously know and probably wouldn’t have otherwise found.

Although their interpretation is not perfect, I really appreciate the way the National Portrait Gallery has actively incorporated portraits of persons of color, women, and queer people in their galleries. Several of these sitters I had not known about previously; one in particular is Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont, commonly known in the eighteenth century as the Chevalier d’Éon. D’Éon evidently did not identify as either a man or a woman, despite physically dressing as both and a public autopsy which imposed a male identity on them after their death. I have chosen to use the singular “they” to refer to d’Éon, to reflect their position on the gender continuum.

A portrait of a heavy-set figure in black silk dress and white lace sits on gilt chair.

Figure 1. Thomas Stewart, after Jean Laurent Mosnier, Portrait of the Chevalier d’Éon. Oil on canvas, 1792. National Portrait Gallery 6937. Image ® National Portrait Gallery, London. Image used with permission.

D’Éon was born in France in 1728. They used their social connections and writing skills to quickly rise through the ranks of the French civil service. As part of this, d’Éon was a diplomat, spy, and soldier during the Seven Years War. This espionage activity supposedly began during a masquerade ball at Versailles when d’Éon dressed as a woman. Such masquerades, or costume parties, where guests bent the lines of race, gender, and sexuality in their costumes were common. After this party, d’Éon was employed by King Louis XV to present themself as a woman on several diplomatic missions in the 1760s.

A caricature print of an eighteenth-century figure standing. The right half dressed as a man and the left half dressed as a woman.

Figure 2. Unknown artist, Caricature of the Chevalier d’Éon. Intaglio (etching and engraving) print published in the London Magazine 1777. National Portrait Gallery D43329. Image ® National Portrait Gallery, London. Image used with permission.

After returning from the last mission, d’Éon lived as both a man and a woman, as the caricature in Fig. 2 attests. The subtitle, “Female Minister plenipo[tentiary], Capt. of Dragoons &c. &c.” points to the prestige of the titles d’Éon held, while the impossible nature of the figure suggests the public’s fascination with d’Éon’s gender. Caught in a web of political in-fighting and intrigue, d’Éon lived in semi-exile in Europe until dying in 1810. Though they routinely wore men’s clothes and were publicly appointed as a dragoon leader, rumors circulated that d’Éon was, in fact, a woman dressing as a man. A betting pool speculating on their birth gender was even registered at the London Stock Exchange, but this was never resolved. Prints recorded and fostered the public fascination with d’Éon’s ambiguous gender identity (Fig. 3). At d’Éon’s death, an autopsy was publicly performed, where surgeon Thomas Copeland noted d’Éon had “male organs in every respect perfectly formed,” arbitrarily imposing a male identity (1).

A figure holding a sheet stands on a pedestal to the left while several women examine the body and a larger group of women on the right watch.

Figure 3. Unknown artist, The Trial of M. D’Eon by A Jury of Matrons. Intaglio (etching) print, published in the Town and Country Magazine 1 June 1771. National Portrait Gallery D48171. Image ® National Portrait Gallery, London. Image used with permission.

This biography—the story of someone who did not conform to society’s expectations, becoming a caricature and spectacle—is largely depressing. Imagine how awful it would be to have a public betting pool on something as personal as your birth gender.

However, d’Éon’s portrait (Fig. 1) is still a confident individual. The sitter stares directly into the eyes of the viewer. The skilled handling of the slightly ruddy flesh tones contrasts with the flowing silk dress and fathers, which foregrounds the hard edges of the Croix de St Louis medal. D’Éon wore these clothes while participating in professional fencing matches, a source of fame and income later in life. The painting is one of material juxtapositions that allude to the social and cultural juxtapositions of d’Éon’s life. The National Portrait Gallery, in acquiring the painting (in 2012), introduced the story of a marginalized person not only to their collection, but also to hundreds of thousands of visitors, including me. Meeting the Chevalier there was a reminder of activist roles that we as scholars should take, and throughout the remainder of the trip, I asked myself whose stories are not routinely told in discussions of British-American design.

  1. M. J. Rogister. “D’Éon de Beaumont, Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée, Chevalier D’Éon in the French nobility.” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004; online ed., 2012.

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