Over 200 years ago, a French soldier, diplomat and spy known by the name of Chevalier d'Éon (1728–1810) lived openly as a man in the first half of life, and as a woman until their death.
Referred to as 'she' or 'he' depending on the historical account you are reading, for the purposes of this article, I will refer to d'Éon as 'they'. Although after their death, d'Éon's gender was proclaimed to be male, in their unpublished autobiography The Interests of the Chevalier d'Éon de Beaumont, they claimed to have been born female but raised male 'by a father desperate for a son'.
In today's context, the story of d'Éon divides historians. While some regard d'Éon as a proto-'trans' figure, others such as Gary Kates refute this notion, arguing instead that they switched gender as part of a social and political strategy. The fascinating story of d'Éon raises questions about the role of gender in eighteenth-century Europe, indicating that perhaps a more open attitude about gender and sexual politics long preceded contemporary conversations about LGBTQ+ identities.
Fortunately, numerous artistic depictions of d'Éon still exist in UK collections, including this work painted by Thomas Stewart at the height of d'Éon's fame while living in Britain in 1792.
Previously misattributed to the artist Gilbert Stuart, and believed to be an unknown middle-aged woman, in 2012, the gallerist Philip Mould rediscovered the portrait and confirmed the sitter to be the Chevalier d'Éon. The work is now housed in the National Portrait Gallery.
Born Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont, d'Éon was born into nobility in the town of Tonnerre, south-east of Paris. D'Éon excelled academically and graduated from law school, becoming a political writer and advocate for social and financial reform. From the mid-1750s, d'Éon entered diplomatic service, acting as a French spy in Russia and appointed to Louis XV's organisation Le Secret du Roi.
During the Seven Years' War (1756–1763), d'Éon fought valiantly as a soldier and was eventually sent to London in 1762 to negotiate the Treaty of Paris. The treaty was signed the following year, for which they were awarded the Order of Saint-Louis and officially became 'Chevalier' (which translates into 'Knight').
In public, d'Éon was at the centre of the diplomatic stage between Britain and France in an attempt to reconcile relations, though, in secret, they had been ordered by Louis XV to strategise an invasion that would allow the French to seek revenge against the British. In possession of such a sensitive and large secret, d'Éon manipulated the king from abroad and used this information to their own advantage.
Due to a political storm involving the new French ambassador, Comte de Guerchy, and the King's mistress, Madame de Pompadour, d'Éon was recalled back to France but refused to obey diplomatic orders. To France's horror, in 1764 d'Éon published secret state correspondence to British audiences in a scandalous publication known as the Lettres, mémoires, et négociations. Satirical etchings like the one below in the British Museum crudely represented d'Éon spewing 'evidence against certain persons', both in France and Britain.
After d'Éon's whistleblowing, they continued to live in London as an outcast, though they blackmailed Louis XV into paying a pension of 12,000 livres per year for not revealing the plan of invasion. This continued for almost a decade, during which time d'Éon became a popular figure in London against the backdrop of rumours spreading about their sex. In the early 1770s, a wager over d'Éon's sexual identity began at the London Stock Exchange. According to some historians, in London's coffee houses d'Éon would challenge anyone who bet on their sex to a duel. In contrast, Gary Kates has argued that d'Éon self-fashioned the rumours, claiming that 'the roots of d'Éon's foray into womanhood lie in this profound estrangement from political life.'
After the death of Louis XV in 1774, d'Éon entered into negotiations with Louis XVI. An agreement was finally drawn up, but stipulated that d'Éon could return to France only if they 'readopted' women's clothing. It remains unclear whether Louis XVI forced d'Éon into this gender transformation (possibly as a means to marginalise them from political life), or whether it was d'Éon's own choice. What is clear, is that d'Éon – upon returning to Britain one decade later and remaining there long after the removal of the monarchy during the French Revolution – chose to spend the rest of their life as a woman. This fact, compounded by the word 'readopt' suggests that they had been, or preferred to be a woman all along.
In Britain, d'Éon became a celebrity, socialising with aristocracy and royalty and performing fencing displays in women's attire, as captured in numerous prints and originally in a painting by Alexandre-Auguste Robineau of c.1787, which now belongs in The Royal Collection.
During the French Revolution, d'Éon even offered to lead an army of 'Amazonian women' before France's National Assembly. It is believed that the National Portrait Gallery painting, a copy after the original created by Jean Laurent Mosnier and exhibited at The Royal Academy in 1791, was painted during such public discussions. In the portrait, d'Éon wears their signature black dress, a large hat with the revolutionary Tricolore bow and the Order of St Louis medal.
Although an oddity for the eighteenth century, the enigmatic d'Éon earned praise in European society. Some modern historians, such as Thomas Laqueur, go so far as to argue that the eighteenth century witnessed a destabilising of the traditional gendered hierarchy – that women in the upper echelons of society were increasingly seen as complementary to men, rather than inferior. The phenomenon of 'gender bending', and in particular, women escaping their feminine duties by disguising themselves as men, wasn't entirely new for this period of history.
Take Nadezhda Durova (1783–1866) a woman by birth who joined the Russian army to defeat Napoleon and was awarded the Cross of St George personally by Tsar Alexander I, all in disguise as a man. Or Hannah Snell (1723–1792), who dressed as a man so that she could serve as a marine in the English Royal Navy, and James 'Miranda' Barry (1789–1865), an Irish military surgeon in the British army. When we jump ahead to the early nineteenth century, Anne Lister (1791–1840) became a successful landowner and was known as Yorkshire's 'Gentleman Jack' for dressing in men's clothing and openly living in a lesbian relationship.
Although sexual transgressions were not condoned in eighteenth-century society, the flamboyant fashions of the time allowed for fluid, cross-gendered experimentation. Courtiers during the reign of Louis XIV to Louis XVI dressed effeminately, dating back to one of the most famous cases, the cross-dressing Abbé de Choisy. The French styles influenced the outlandish 'Macaronis' in Britain, who emerged between the 1760s and 1770s and were described in The Oxford Magazine as 'neither male nor female, a thing of the neuter gender.'
At the Russian royal courts, cross-dressing balls took place regularly and were first popularised in the 1740s during the rule of the empress Elizabeth, whose court d'Éon had visited in the 1750s. In this equestrian portrait, the empress wears masculine, hunting attire. Grigory Potemkin, the Russian statesman, having attended one of her notorious masquerade balls famously commented: 'the only woman who looked truly fine and completely a man, was the empress herself.'
Despite this liberal sartorial context, d'Éon remained an anomalous and divisive figure. Writing in 1780, the diarist James Boswell wrote 'Never before had I beheld a woman whose manners were so absurd, so masculine, and unsuitable to her sex.'
The following year, the Annual Register wrote: '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.'
Early proto-feminists such as Mary Wollstonecraft highlighted the story of d'Éon to set an example of what women were capable of achieving if allowed the same opportunities as men.
This caricature from 1777, published in the London Magazine, captures the split vision and identity of d'Éon in the popular imagination.
Dressed half as a woman, half as a man, d'Éon wears a full wig and lady's dress on one side, and men's dragoon attire on the other. In the British Museum, another print engraving of d'Éon from 1778 presents a similar sight. The words 'Object: Hail! Thou Production most uncommon...' appear beneath the figure.
The widespread belief that d'Éon was a con artist, fraudster and even monster continued into the nineteenth century and beyond, with one of the most famous accounts of d'Éon's life documented in Bram Stoker's Famous Imposters (1910) under the chapter 'Hoaxes'.
In 1920, the sexologist and physician Havelock Ellis studied the figure of d'Éon, coining the psychiatric term 'Eonism'. This referred to Ellis' belief in a psychological disorder wherein a man adopts and imitates female dress and behaviours. This paved the way for other problematic explanations of transsexuality that we would consider to be wrong and outdated today. According to Ellis in his book The Psychology of Sex:
'It is normal for a man to identify himself with the woman he loves. The Eonist carries that identification too far, stimulated by a sensitive and feminine element in himself which is associated with a rather defective virile sexuality on what may be a neurotic basis.'
Kates has pointed out that d'Éon was an avid reader of early feminist literature, collecting many books and encyclopedias that documented the historic achievements of women. D'Éon also wrote critically about gender and analysed the differences between men and women, even arguing that women were more virtuous than men especially with regards to the Christian faith.
Towards the end of their life, d'Éon cohabited with a French woman called Mrs Mary Cole in Millman Street, Holborn and spent several months in prison for unpaid debts. In 1805 they received an advance from a publisher to write their Memoirs, which were written (many claim highly fictionalised) but never published. After their death, the autopsy revealed male genitalia, which resolved wagers, heated debates and gossip that had characterised the past four decades, though this does little to define d'Éon's 'gender identity' by twenty-first-century ideas.
A truly remarkable individual, d'Éon spent their life acting as a double agent professionally and personally, while also fearlessly going against the status quo. What remains one of the most intriguing aspects of d'Éon's story is that despite living within a deeply patriarchal society – one which was intolerant of sexual transgressions – the public still rejoiced and respected the presence of d'Éon.
Lydia Figes, Content Editor at Art UK
Gary Kates, 'The Transgendered World of the D'Éon/Chevalière D'Eon', The Journal of Modern History, 1995
Simon Burrows, Jonathan Conlin, Russell Goulbourne, Valerie Mainz, The Chevalier d'Eon and his Worlds: Gender, Espionage and Politics in the Eighteenth Century, 2011