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Chevalier d'Eon

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Chevalier d'Eon

by Thomas Stewart, after Jean Laurent Mosnier
oil on canvas, 1792
30 1/8 in. x 25 1/4 in. (765 mm x 640 mm)
Purchased, 2012
Primary Collection
NPG 6937

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This painting of the celebrated soldier, diplomat and fencer, Chevalier d’Éon (Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d' Éon de Beaumont) (1728-1810), was an important acquisition for the National Portrait Gallery as it is the earliest representation of a transgender person in the Collection. D’Éon was respected internationally after playing a key role in peace negotiations that ended the Seven Years’ War, and later as a professional fencer, performing for George, Prince of Wales, though always fighting in women’s attire. This portrait is an unprecedented historic document of the sitter’s acceptance into British society at a time when people who wore clothing not associated with their assigned gender were viciously persecuted. The decision to acquire the portrait was largely based on the sitter’s importance to the history of transgender people in Britain.
When the portrait was initially offered to the National Portrait Gallery, curators were unaware that it was a contemporary copy of an original portrait painted by French artist, Jean-Laurent Mosnier (1743-1808). This came to light when the owner of the original portrait informed the Gallery of its existence. The Mosnier painting had been exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1791 where, according to The Public Advertiser, dated 23rd March 1792, it was received with ‘general satisfaction’ by the public. An article in The European Magazine and London Review, written almost a year later, confirms that the portrait was bought by the Irish army officer and politician, Francis Hastings Rawdon, 1st Marquess of Hastings and 2nd Earl of Moira (1754-1826). The National Portrait Gallery’s portrait of D’Éon is signed by Thomas Stewart and can also be traced to Francis Rawdon, who may have commissioned this copy of the original for a friend, Sir John Macnamara Hayes (1750?–1809). Hayes was a military physician who in November 1793 was appointed director of hospitals in the army by Francis Rawdon.
At Hayes’ death, the portrait was passed down in his family until it was sold at auction in November 2011. When sold, the auctioneers catalogued the work as ‘Woman with Feather Hat’ and attributed it to the artist Gilbert Stuart.

Linked publicationsback to top

  • 100 Portraits, p. 49
  • Smartify image discovery app
  • Various contributors, National Portrait Gallery: A Portrait of Britain, 2014, p. 114 Read entry

    The Chevalier d’Eon, a minor French aristocrat, had a triumphant career as a French diplomat, soldier and spy before publicly assuming a female gender. D’Eon first came to London in 1763 to negotiate peace at the end of the Seven Years’ War, after which he was ordered to return to France but refused to go. Instead, he blackmailed the French court with his knowledge of secret invasion plans against England and published secret diplomatic correspondence that implicated prominent French ministers in corruption. Rumours that d’Eon was a woman in disguise, encouraged by d’Eon himself, spread from 1771 onwards and were widely accepted. In 1777, after a period of exile from France, Louis XVI offered d’Eon a royal pension if he henceforth exclusively wore women’s clothing.

    In 1785 d’Eon returned to England, where he mixed in high society and became a celebrated female fencer, a career cut short by injury in 1796. After his death, an autopsy revealed him to be anatomically male.

    This work by Thomas Stewart (1766–c.1801) is a contemporary copy of a portrait by the French artist Jean-Laurent Mosnier (1743–1808) and exhibited at the Royal Academy exhibition in 1791.

Events of 1792back to top

Current affairs

The famous seven year trial of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of Bengal, on charges of embezzlement and murder, ends with his acquittal. Pro-Revolutionary philosopher Joseph Priestley's house is destroyed by a mob on the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. Their actions are later seen as a key moment in the defeat of Enlightenment ideals in England.

Art and science

Mary Wollstonecraft publishes A Vindication of the Rights of Woman; a radical work which called on women to be allies to one another; fearless in their support and free in their criticism.
Sir Joshua Reynolds dies and is succeeded by Benjamin West as President of the Royal Academy.

International

The mob invades the Tuileries and the French Royal Family is imprisoned marking the end of France's experiment with constitutional monarchy and the declaration of the first French Republic.
The Revolutionary Commune is established in Paris.
France declares war on Austria and then Prussia.

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