Chevalier d'Eon by Thomas Stewart, based on an image by Jean-Laurent Mosnier

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A white person, wearing a black dress with white lace collar, and a large black hat topped with a feather.
The Chevalier d’Eon, a French soldier, spy and diplomat, who lived as both a man and a woman.
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)
NPG 6937
© National Portrait Gallery, London
On display in Room 18 on Floor 3 at the National Portrait Gallery

The Chevalier d’Eon (1728–1810) was a French soldier, Diplomat A person whose job is to represent their country in a foreign country, for example in an embassy. and spy. D’Eon first became famous in England after publishing secret French documents, and went on to become a celebrity, mixing in fashionable society.

D’Eon lived in London from 1762 to 1777 as a man, and from 1785 to 1810 as a woman – the first person recorded in British history to live openly as both a man and a woman. During both these periods, the Chevalier was noted as a political figure and celebrated in popular culture.

The term ‘ Transgender Describing or relating to people whose gender identity does not match the sex they were assigned at birth. ’ and the pronoun ‘they’ are both from the modern-day and would not have been used in the 1700s. For this reason, the Chevalier d’Eon is simply referred to as ‘the Chevalier d’Eon’, ‘d’Eon’ or ‘the Chevalier’ throughout this resource to account for the changing way d’Eon presented to the world.

Analysing the portrait

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A white person, wearing a black dress with white lace collar, and a large black hat topped with a feather.
Chevalier d'Eon, by Thomas Stewart, after Jean-Laurent Mosnier, 1792

Look carefully at the portrait. Take your time – look at it for at least a whole minute. What can you see?

    • D’Eon is wearing a plain black silk dress with a large white lace collar.
    • D’Eon is also wearing a French medal, the Croix de Saint-Louis. At this time, medals were only awarded to men.
    • D’Eon was awarded this medal and the title ‘Chevalier’ ( Knight During the Middle Ages, this was a man of high social rank who had a duty to fight for his king. They are often pictured riding horses and wearing armour. ) a number of years before this portrait was painted, for helping to bring about peace between Britain and France.
    • D’Eon became hugely popular as a performer in Fencing The sport of fighting with long thin swords. demonstrations. The Chevalier wore this medal and dress in these performances.
    • D’Eon’s hat is decorated with ostrich feathers and red, white and blue ribbons. Ribbons like these showed support for the French Revolution A period of massive social and political change taking place in France between 1789–99. .
    • A faint shadow of beard stubble can be seen around d’Eon’s mouth and chin.
    • D’Eon looks out directly at us, the viewer, with a gentle smile, appearing relaxed and at ease.
    • D’Eon’s seated pose and calm expression were typical of portraits of members of British high society at this time.
    • D’Eon is wearing a style of dress worn by older women rather than the high fashions favoured by younger people at the time.
    • The shadows under d’Eon’s eyes and around the neck and chin also suggest that this is a portrait of an older person.
    • This portrait was painted towards the end of the Chevalier d’Eon’s life, and shows the Chevalier aged about 62.
It must indeed be acknowledged that she is the most extraordinary person of the age ... we have seen no one who has united so many military, political, and literary talents 
The Annual Register for 1781 on d’Eon, which recorded the year’s major events.

Who was the Chevalier d’Eon?

  • The Chevalier d’Eon was born in France as Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d'Eon de Beaumont. Long names like this were typically given to people born into high-class French families at this time.
  • D'Eon was known to wear women’s clothing in early adult life.
  • The Chevalier d’Eon became a soldier in the French army. By 1756, d’Eon had joined the French king Louis XV’s secret spy network.
  • D’Eon first came to Britain in 1762 living as man, to help secure a Peace treaty An agreement between two or more countries or groups, which formally ends a state of war. between Britain and France. The Chevalier became well known in fashionable society.
  • While still in Britain, d’Eon Publish To make something available to the public through media such as books and newspapers, or online. secret letters revealing French Corruption Dishonest or illegal behaviour, especially of people in authority. .
  • D’Eon also threatened to reveal secret French information about invading Britain. Louis XV offered d’Eon money to keep silent, with the unusual condition that d’Eon should present as a woman from that point onwards.
  • Women’s rights in the 1700s were very limited. By presenting as a woman, d’Eon would no longer be able to work in politics or do any further damage to France and the French king.
  • In 1785, d’Eon finally returned to Britain, living as a woman until dying 25 years later.
  • D’Eon’s new identity brought great fame. In 1785, d’Eon began a new career, performing in Fencing The sport of fighting with long thin swords. demonstrations. The Chevalier was very skilled and large audiences came to watch these performances.
  • The Chevalier d’Eon died in 1810, still presenting as a woman. When d’Eon’s body was examined, many were shocked to learn that the Chevalier d’Eon had male body parts.

Why is this portrait significant?

  • The Chevalier d’Eon was the first person recorded in British history to live openly as both a man and a woman. This portrait documents the Chevalier’s extraordinary life as well as society’s attitudes towards d’Eon.
  • D’Eon’s bravery and success in expressing gender identity is remarkable for this time.
  • This is a copy of a portrait shown at the Royal Academy in 1791. Copies were often made when the person in a portrait was popular. The fact that a copy was made is an indication of d'Eon's fame.

Questions

  1. What impression to you get of the Chevalier d’Eon from this portrait?
  1. What might this portrait tell us about the Chevalier’s identity at the time the picture was painted?
  1. In Britain in the 1700s, people enjoyed looking at portraits of famous people, like this one, and gossiping about celebrities’ lives. What might the equivalent of this be today?