What does it mean to be a hero? Working for a gallery that celebrates individual achievement means that we often come across surprising life stories. For me, however, few are as inspiring as that of the Chevalier D’Eon and it was exciting to work on the acquisition of his portrait for the Collection. In the eighteenth century, homosexuality was punishable by death, there was no understanding of transsexuality and men who dressed in women’s clothing were viciously persecuted. Yet despite such oppression, D’Eon managed to forge two very successful careers: firstly as a man, working as a soldier, diplomat and spy, and then as a woman.
D’Eon’s extraordinary story sparked a debate over the display of the portrait: which pronoun to use? The answer ought to be whichever pronoun D’Eon preferred but here we hit the great problem of working with historical objects – the limitations of surviving evidence. While living as a man, D’Eon had bought women’s clothes for himself but he only began living exclusively as a woman due to external pressure. The French court, convinced by persistent rumours about D’Eon’s gender, only agreed to give him a pension if he wore ‘clothing appropriate to her sex’. This ruling reflects the strict eighteenth-century gender division: ultimately, D’Eon had to choose. He took the pension and lived the rest of his life as a woman, forging a very successful career in Britain as a female fencer.
We simply don’t know whether D’Eon would have chosen to be transvestite, transsexual or something else entirely if those options had been available. We didn’t want to repeat the mistake of the French king, in not realising that a man could choose to wear a dress, so we decided to use the male pronoun. However, D’Eon’s true gender identity remains an intriguing puzzle. Fortunately, this debate over the limitations of language doesn’t detract from his real achievements. In a period of oppression, D’Eon managed to come out on top. His courage in finding a way to be himself, despite the restrictions of his day, makes him a truly inspiring figure to have in the Collection.