18th-c. English portrait of a transvestite

The National Gallery in London has recently acquired a portrait of the Chevalier d’Eon, the diplomat, soldier, spy, and transvestite. For political, and possibly personal, reasons he dressed as a woman.  She was highly regarded by her contemporaries.  This portrait is one of the earliest, and perhaps clearest, depictions of cross-dressing.  Here’s the article.  Be sure to click on the “magnify” button to see the full portrait.

What do you think?

11 thoughts on “18th-c. English portrait of a transvestite

  1. Megan Rosengrant

    Gender and sexuality is a fluid thing in humans, and I think that this portrait fits into the time period’s construction of sexual identity. I am no expert of sexual identity within the 18c, but I do know that even a century earlier, this cross dressing was common on stage. Women were not allowed on stage, and in their stead men dressed as women to play the part. While I realize that the time between the 17c and 18c changed social construction, I wonder if this cross-dressing was considered of monumental importance. Meaning, I wonder if people really cared. The description as well as article states that the subject was highly regarded among her contemporaries. This must be so, because a lower class person would surely not be able to afford such a painting. To me, the subject was a highly influential person within her time and space, and I am going to assume that gender was not of huge importance in this instance. Furthermore, I think the portrait widens the view of what sexuality is, and how it relates to our contemporary society. The subject allows the audience to come to their own conclusions.

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  2. Jessica L. Coles

    • “Given away by the five o’clock shadow a rather grand if slightly butch 18th century lady with a fancy feathered hat but was in fact Chevalier d’Eon: diplomat, soldier, spy, transvestite.” d’Eon (a famous French soldier who held a key role in negotiating the Peace of Paris in 1763) is considered a fascinating and highly influential figure from 18th century British history. The painting was previously believed to have been of an unknown woman done by Gilbert Stuart. In fact, after the painting was cleaned the name Thomas Stewart was revealed as being the true artist dating to the 1980’s or 1990’s. D’Eon was the first to be socially accepted as a man dressing as a woman in public and was referred to as a female and by M. Robinson and M. Wollstonecraft was held as “a shining example of female fortitude.”

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  3. Cara Dudley

    This was a neat article to read. It’s fascinating to learn that this guy was able to live his life as a woman. In that time he would’ve been shunned if he were anyone else. I guess not everyone in the past was put in a corner for being who they wanted to be. I’m glad he paved such a way for feminism and transgender/transvestites in that time period. That would be a neat painting to see eventually. It would be interesting to compare it to pictures like Olympia.

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  4. Rachel James

    Very interesting article.
    I guess it goes to show you that people have struggled with gender identity for a long time, its not just a ‘fad’ or ‘phase’ thats popular right now.
    It must have been absolutely unheard of for a man to willingly become a woman in this time period, especially because women had so few rights and were thought to be incredibly inferior to men. All the more reason to applaud the courage D’Eon.

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  5. Emma Whitaker

    When I think of the 18th century I imagine a more socially conservative society which is why I was surprised by this article when I read that D’Eon was openly a transvestite. Personally, I am not opposed to people cross dressing or identifying with another gender but to learn that a man of such social status and influence would be so open and accepting about his situation, although I am not sure if he was a transvestite by choice or because the King made a deal with him. Either way, he did what he had to as a man, and as a woman.

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  6. Celina Neal

    This is really empowering and interesting! I’m beyond surprised that I’ve never heard of the cross dressing D’Eon. It’s really an amazing story of a person who was a trailblazer in not only the cross dressing and trans community, but in major political ways as well. During such a conservative and traditional time, I find it astounding that an individual could have so much influence while being so drastically different than the common person. I also think it’s important to shed more light on individuals like D’Eon who were standouts and have stories of authenticity no matter what sort of opposition they may have faced. Especially in this modern era that is finally trying to collectively understand and acknowledge varies lifestyles.

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  7. Samantha Adams

    Very interesting article considering the time period of the work, I was surprised by the subject. Typically I would think of the 18th c. as very conservative and not a time to be different, but D’Eon was pretty obviously unafraid. When the article mentions how she lived much of her life as a soldier and diplomat before living as a woman, which sort of reminded me of Caitlyn Jenner’s life–began life as a traditional man but was able to come out as a woman and live life that way.

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  8. Brittany Johnson

    I really enjoyed this article because not often do people imagine modern situations in the past. Of course there was people with differing gender identities in the past, but often time their story is erased. This however is a fantastic case where it was not. Many times minorities are displayed in art as very unsavory ways, but this very classy portrait speaks volumes.

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  9. Caroline Thompson

    I found this articled to be very interesting because of how popular the topic of sexuality is within our society, especially within politics now. Up until recently, the LGBTQ+ community has gained more support as the years go on. However, there will always be a stigma on them and some people will never fully accept their rights. Seeing this painting from the 18th-c is so astonishing because of how long it has taken to get to this point of acceptance for people, like transgenders for example. Just like the article states, nobody knows for sure if Chevalier d’Eon was a transgender woman or a cross-dresser but if people back then seem to accept him wearing womens clothing for a painting then people should try to accept the LGBTQ+ community now.

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  10. Tai Frazier

    I love it when historians find proof that gender (and somewhat by extension, sexuality) has always been a pretty fluid concept, at least up until the Victorian era’s massive amounts of conservatism. I would have loved to meet D’Eon, if only to ask her about what I’m sure was a fascinating life: diplomat, soldier, and spy is an impressive list of titles!

    I have a lot of transgender friends, one of whom’s least favorite things to hear is that being LGBT is a modern fad. As the article said, D’Eon is “one of the very few historical figures that the gallery can represent that is a positive role model for modern LGBT audiences”. Learning about her made me wonder how many other transgender and gender non-conforming individuals there have been throughout history that we don’t know about.

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  11. Sara Z

    It is very refreshing to see a piece representing trans people and even the LGBTQ community. I have never seen— much less known— any artworks in older history that express LGBTQ perspectives and people besides possibly Frida Kahlo, a prominent feminist figure who was bisexual. The long-time misinterpretation that this piece was of a cis-female is not too surprising to me, since history and culture has always had some influence regarding how others view artworks. The article does a great job not discussing about the figure of the piece and the art itself in a demeaning manner— helpful for not painting the community in a bad light.

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