The LGBT community is thrilled at the NPG London’s acquisition of a painted portrait of a male transvestite. The subject dressed in women’s clothing was painted in 1792, it depicts Britain’s first celebrated male cross-dresser. Lost since 1926, this painting of the Chevalier d’Eon, an eighteenth-century diplomat, is on show at the Gallery for the first time today, Wed 6 June 2012. Following its discovery by the gallery owner Philip Mould, this will be its first period of public display.
Chevalier d’Eon lived in London from 1762-1777 as a man, and from 1785-1810 as a woman and, during both periods, he enjoyed considerable fame in international politics, high society and popular culture.
No transvestite or transsexual, until the late twentieth century has enjoyed such public recognition, acceptance and popular affection. The portrait is seen as an unprecedented historic document of his identity and acceptance into British society at a time when men who were caught wearing women’s clothing were viciously persecuted.
Long before he lived publicly as a woman, d’Eon was feted as a famous soldier, champion fencer and diplomat who negotiated the Peace of Paris in 1763. Having lived in England for 13 years he refused to return to France when recalled, blackmailing the French crown with threats to sell French government secrets to the British.
Painted at the height of his fame, it shows d’Eon wearing the full cockade of a supporter of the French Revolution at a time when d’Eon was trying to court the new Revolutionary government with the promise of leading an army of women soldiers against their enemies. Such depictions of support for the Revolution are mirrored by few other works in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection.
This signed and dated painting by Thomas Stewart, is a copy of one exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791 by Jean Laurent Mosnier. Stewart’s portrait was probably commissioned by Francis Rawdon Hastings, 2nd Earl of Moira and 1st Marquess of Hastings, who was a libertine and dandy with a taste for portraits of exotic subjects. It would have been painted at the same time d’Eon was a popular celebrity renowned for his demonstration fencing routines which he performed in women’s attire.
Interest in d’Eon has never waned with a new biography appearing approximately every 20 years between the 1830s and the 1950s. In 1928, Havelock Ellis coined the term ‘Eonism’ to describe transvestism and this remained in use until the 1960s. In the last 30 years, with the development of the academic discipline of Queer Studies research into d’Eon has never been more energetic. The Beaumont Society (which is named after the Chevalier d’Eon de Beaumont) was formed in 1966 to offer advice to the transgendered community. Today it is the largest and longest-established group to give support of this kind.
While there are photographs in the Gallery’s Collection of Eddie Izzard and Grayson Perry they are not shown in female attire and so, with the exception of photographs of performers as their stage personas such as Paul O’ Grady as Lily Savage and Barry Humphries as Dame Edna Everage, the newly acquired painting can be seen as a first for the Gallery of a male transvestite wearing women’s clothing.
Dr Lucy Peltz, Curator of Eighteenth Century Portraits, National Portrait Gallery, London, says: ‘The Chevalier d’Eon was a figure of international fame and notoriety in the eighteenth century, for his military, diplomatic and social exploits. But it is his courage in following his gender orientation in the face of the severest penalties that make this portrait one of the most inspiring and fascinating images’.
Chevalier d’Eon (Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste Andrè Timothée d’Eon de Beaumont) (1728-1810) began his career as a French soldier, diplomat and spy, and first came to London in 1762 as part of the French embassy. He was instrumental in negotiating the Peace of Paris, which ended the Seven Years War. Despite being awarded the Croix de St Louis for this achievement, he had become attached to his ambassadorial privileges and refused to return to France when recalled. Instead, in an effort to save his position in England, d’Eon published secret diplomatic correspondence which implicated prominent French ministers in corruption. The book, a sensation in Britain and abroad, broke ambassadorial protocol and caused d’Eon to be dismissed from George III’s court.
D’Eon also attempted to blackmail Louis XVI by threatening to sell secret information to Britain regarding French plans to invade. D’Eon’s access to this intelligence made him dangerous and may have contributed to Louis XVI’s decision in 1775 to silence him with an official pension and the insistence that he should now adopt the dress of a woman. Such a demand was unprecedented and is likely to have been occasioned in response to rumours, encouraged by d’Eon, that he was in fact a woman. He is thought to have attended cross-dressing balls during his earlier mission at the Court of Empress Elizabeth in Russia and buying corsets for himself in London during his period living as a man.
Supported by the French state, he returned to Britain in 1785 and forged a new career for himself performing fencing demonstrations. Popular prints and satires show him fencing in a black dress like the one in this portrait, and, as shown here, he always wore his Croix de St Louis during these fights.
In England there was constant speculation about his gender, bets were placed and d’Eon’s gender became the subject of a trial which declared him to be a woman. As a result of this intense wagering it became illegal to bet on people’s sex due to the humiliation it involved. Despite his lack of feminine decorum or ‘delicacy’, he was upheld by pioneering feminist writers such as Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft as a shining example of female achievement and a benchmark of female fortitude to which British women might aspire. He did not return to wearing men’s clothing after the fall of the French monarchy, in 1789.
After a serious injury while duelling, d’Eon gave up fencing in 1796 and began work on a fictional narrative of his life, describing his progress from soldier to female celebrity. Because the stereotype of a woman dressing as a man to join the army, often in pursuit of her sweetheart was widely recognised, the idea of a d’Eon as a woman was possible to understand for people who had known him as a man.
But speculation about d’Eon’s gender continued throughout his life. The letters and journals of society figures indicate the level of intrigue surrounding d’Eon, whose physical gender was only confirmed after his death, when medical tests demonstrated that he was anatomically male.