my contributions to round 18 of the popular ABC Wednesday meme.
Even in its dirty state, it was clear that the rather butch woman in the feathered hat was sporting five o’clock shadow and was bought by an intrigued London art dealer who took it home for restoration.
The painting now hangs in the National Portrait Gallery, its first portrait of a man dressed as a woman – the diplomat, soldier, spy and transvestite, Chevalier d’Éon.
Chevalier d’Éon, or Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont to give him his full title, was born to an impoverished noble family in Burgundy in 1728. He excelled at school and moved to Paris in 1743, graduating in civil and canon law in 1749 at the age of age 21.
In 1756, d’Éon joined the Secret du Roi, a network of spies working directly for Louis XV, independent from the government and often promoting policies contrary to official treaties. According to d’Éon’s memoirs, he was dispatched on a secret mission to Russia to meet the Empress Elizabeth and to conspire with the pro-French faction against the Hapsburg monarchy.
To hide his identity, d’Éon entered Russia disguised as his own sister, the lady Lea de Beaumont, and served as a maid of honour to the Empress. He eventually became secretary to the embassy in Saint Petersburg and his career in Russia is the subject of one of Valentin Pikul’s novels, ‘Le chevalier d’Éon et la guerre de Sept ans’.
Returning to France in 1760, d’Éon became a captain in the dragoons and fought in the later stages of the Seven Years War and was then sent to London to help draft the peace treaty which was signed in 1763. He was awarded a pension for his services and the Order of Saint-Louis and the title Chevalier, or knight.
Despite the peace treaty, Louis XV secretly conspired against the English and used d’Éon’s presence in London to plot an invasion. This brought him into direct conflict with the power-brokers of France and he became a political exile, if a wealthy one thanks to the pay-off from the king to ensure his silence.
When Louis XV died in 1774, the Secret du Roi was abolished and d’Éon began negotiations for his return to France. He then claimed that he had been born female, but had been raised as a boy as his father could only inherit from his in-laws if he had a son. King Louis XVI and the court supported d’Éon’s claim, but only on condition that he continue to wear women’s clothing. D’Éon readily agreed and was to do so for the rest of his life.
D’Éon particpated in fencing tournaments, despite the handicap of wearing women’s clothes, and the illustration shows him in action against Monsieur Saint-George in 1787. He continued this martial interest until he was seriously wounded at a tournament in Southampton in 1796.
The French Revolution brought an end to the pension granted by Louis XV and his property was also confiscated by the revolutionary government. This left D’Éon in dire finacial straits and he was forced sell most of his possessions. He was sent to debtors prison for five months in 1804 and spent his final years bedridden, dying in poverty in London in 1810 aged 81.
Doctors who examined d’Éon’s body declared he had ‘male organs in every respect perfectly formed’, but that he also displayed feminine characteristics such as rounded limbs and ‘breast remarkably full’. D’Éon was buried in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church.
D’Éon gave his family name to the Beaumont Society, a self-help group for the transgender community and the Japanese anime tv series, Le Chevalier D’Eon, is very loosely based on him. You can read more about D’Éon on Wikipedia and this Guardian article on the finding of his portrait.