- Museum number
Portrait of the Chevalier d'Éon; nearly half-length, seated, in profile to left, in a dress and cap, with star on breast. 1793
Graphite, with grey wash and watercolour
- Production date
Height: 256 millimetres
Width: 192 millimetres
- Curator's comments
- The following is the text on this drawing in S. Lloyd and K. Sloan, 'The Intimate Portrait', SNPG and BM, 2008-9, no. 169, pp. 226-7:
Charles Geneviève Louis Auguste André Timothée D'Éon de Beaumont (1728-1810) was born into a noble French family. He was already a brilliant lawyer and writer by the age of nineteen and was soon involved in the secret du roi who recruited clandestine agents to work alongside unsuspecting French diplomats in Eastern Europe. He then had a successful but brief military career before being sent on a diplomatic mission to London in 1763-4. On its successful completion he was invested with the order of St. Louis and became known as the Chevalier D'Éon. He was made minister-plenipotentiary and spent lavishly, entertaining Walpole, Hume and others and collecting books and manuscripts. He refused to return to France when ordered and the English refused to extradite him; he published letters about his diplomacy that were damaging to France and was outlawed in 1765, adopting female attire as a disguise to disappear.
The Chevalier eventually came to an agreement with Louis XV and kept him informed of English affairs while D'Éon enjoyed a wide circle of English friends but little money. Wagers circulated about his true sex and after Louis XV's death in 1774, he came to an arrangement with the new regime that he would have some of his debts paid in return for handing over some papers and adopting female attire, as a means of controlling his actions and constant duelling. When he returned to France in 1777 in military uniform, he was forced to wear women's clothes and when he finally returned to England in 1785, he resumed his social life but as a woman, staying with the Duke of Dorset at Knole (see no. 6.20 for the Duke's Chinese page also drawn by Dance). He began public displays of his skills in fencing wearing his woman's clothing and his Croix de St. Louis in order to earn money through the 1790s, and it is at this point that he was drawn by Dance. His accurate and perceptive portrait shows precisely what he saw, a man dressed as a woman, straight-backed in the chair, his order which gave him his title proudly and prominently displayed on his chest.
The best way of understanding the Chevalier's celebrity at the time, is through the description of his contemporaries. The biographical notice in Daniell's publication of Dance's portraits provided a detailed account of the Chevalier's life in London; ignorant of his spying activities, it reported that he was honoured with the notice and friendship of the most distinguished persons in the country. The account continued: 'Having been thus actively employed in the most important transactions of the world as a scholar, a soldier, and a statesman, what must be our astonishment to see him suddenly transformed into a woman! About the year 1777 he assumed the dress of a female, and ever after till the time of his decease was universally believed to be a woman; but his death has ascertained the truth, and left no room for to doubt that he was, what he originally appeared to be - a man. The latter period of his life was passed in poverty and distress. He died May 21, 1810.'
After his death an autopsy was performed to establish his sex and the surgeon John Heaviside kept one of the testes as a curiosity for his museum of anatomical specimens (P. E. Kell, 'John Heaviside' Oxford DNB, article 57471; accessed 20 May 2008). As the Chevalier's current biographer, Rogister, has noted, then, as now, his 'outrageous, though understandable, behaviour in 1763-4 and his extraordinary career as a transvestite have overshadowed his remarkable prowess as a soldier, his undoubted skills as a diplomat, informant, and secret agent, and his qualities as a scholar and writer.'
SELECTED LITERATURE: L. Binyon, 'Cat. of British Drawings in the BM', Dance, no. 5; J.J.J. Rogister, 'Charles Genevieve Louis Auguste André Timothée D'Éon de Beaumont', Oxford DNB [article 7523, accessed 31 Jan. 2008]
Etched by William Daniell, 15 August 1810, and published in his 'A Collection of Seventy-two Portraits of Eminent Characters Sketched from Life since the Year 1793', 1808-1814, vol.2.
An impression of Daniell's etching without letters is in the Department, register no. 1925,0511.26.143, in a bound volume of portraits after Dance kept at 209*.b.6.
- Not on display
- Exhibition history
1974 July-Dec, BM, Portrait Drawings, no.334
2008/9 Oct-Jan, Edinburgh, SNPG, 'The Intimate Portrait', no. 169
2009 Mar-May, London, BM, Room 90, 'The Intimate Portrait'
- Acquisition date
- Prints and Drawings
- Registration number