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#ArtDept: Looks Can Be Deceiving, The Chevalier d’Eon, the Transgender Spy

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National Portrait Gallery

 

This portrait from late 18th century, titled Portrait Of A Woman With A Feather In Her Hat, is signed ”T. Stewart, 1792”, thought to be Thomas Stuart. Not much is known about Stewart. He must have had a fairly successful portrait practice in London in the late 18th Century, he exhibited 24 works at the Royal Academy between 1784 and 1801, including a portrait of King George III, although he painted mostly actors and singers.

If not for the lace fichu, the subject in the picture might seem more masculine, if slightly less flamboyant in his dress, than any other 18th century gentleman. He (she) was French spy, diplomat and transgender woman, The Chevalier d’Éon, whose real name is easy to mangle: Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont (1728 -1810).

The five o’clock shadow is a tip off, plus d’Éon was also a bit burly. Although he spent extravagant amounts of money on dresses and accessories, he continued to wear stubble and it was reported that he would hitch his skirts up while climbing stairs.

D’Éon joined the French civil service when he was young, progressing through the ranks until being appointed Ambassador to Russia in 1756. He was tasked with winning the support of Russian Empress Elizabeth, as well as promoting French interests in Russia.

D’Éon’s time in Russia also saw his first encounters with cross-dressing. Empress Elizabeth held regular drag balls where all attendants were obliged to arrive in a dress, regardless of their gender.

D’Éon’s spent two periods in London during his lifetime. First, in the 1760s when King Louis XV sent d’Éon to London as a spy but soon replaced him and demoted him after just a year in the city. He went public as a cross-dresser soon afterwards, possibly to spite the King Louis.

In 1764, he gave his first warning to the French authorities, publishing a tell-all memoir which contained all of his personal correspondence with the French royal family; embarrassing revelations about their sex lives which served to isolate him from France but win popularity in England. The result was 14 years of political exile in London, with a shaken King Louis afraid to let him back into France.

The rumors swirled about d’Éon’s gender and sexual habits. When he finally returned to Paris, he was impoverished, and started performing as a female fencer.

His life in Russia, Paris and London was distinguished by the fact that he spent 49 years as a man, and then 33 years as a woman. In the portrait, the flamboyant nonconformist looks rather ordinary. The fichu hides no décolletage. D’Éon called himself ”Mademoiselle”, and claimed that he was born ”coiffé” (covered in foetal membranes), which may be where our current president came up with the term ”cofefe”. D’Éon’s gender, he insisted, was a mystery from the start.

Mademoiselle de Beaumont, Chevalier d’Éon by
Pierre Adrien le Beau (1744-1817)

 

It was just the sort of contradictory status D’Éon relished. In London, he spent lavishly and schmoozed key British aristocrats. London society was perplexed; diplomats rarely tried to keep their sex mysterious. D’Éon bemused Londoners so much that people taking bets about his sex. He also had friendships among the ”libellistes”, French expatriates who, from the safety of London, produced pornographic publications about the royals at home.

He blackmailed King Louis and used the windfall to amass more than 6,000 rare books and manuscripts. Then, when Louis died in 1774, he demanded that the French government recognize him as a woman. The new king, Louis XVI ordered that D’Éon dress full-time as a woman.

King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette received d’Éon at court. Four years before the start of the French Revolution, she finally threw in the towel and returned to London. When the Bastille was taken in 1789, her military enthusiasms were reawakened, but no one took up her up on her offer to lead a women’s brigade. D’Éon found herself a victim of the patriarchal society of the day. Politically her voice was silenced. She also lost her pension. D’Éon was forced to sell her rare books. A celebrity to the British public, to make ends meet she began staging and taking part in fencing competitions, mesmerizing her fans as a ferocious woman sword fighter. Into her 60s, she continued the matches, until an injury forced her to retire.

The Fencing Match Between the Chevalier de Saint-George and the Chevalier d’Éon by Alexandre-Auguste Robineau

 

For the final years of her life, D’Éon lived in obscurity, lodging in the boarding house of an elderly woman in London and increasingly vanishing from the public eye. It was only when she passed away in 1810 that a mortician discovered she was biologically male.

Today, she is remembered as namesake of the Beaumont Society, a British cross-dressing and the transgender rights organization.


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