Caricature of the Chevalier D'Eon a.k.a. Mademoiselle de Beaumont
Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d'Éon de Beaumont (1728–1810), better known simply as the Chevalier d'Éon, was one of the 18th century’s greatest celebrities. The subject of numerous paintings and prints, d'Éon was a celebrated dragoon, a skilled fencer, a spitfire pamphleteer, and a spy sent on diplomatic missions to both England and Russia by King Louis XV. Beyond the film-worthy adventures, d'Éon lived the first half of life as a man, and the second half as a woman, sometimes known as Mademoiselle de Beaumont.
Numerous images of d’Eon survive, including this 1777 print published in the September issue of The London Magazine, which depicts a body divided; one side dedicated to Mademoiselle de Beaumont, the other to Chevalier d’Éon. “Mademoiselle de Beaumont, or the Chevalier d’Eon. Female Minister Plenipo., Capt. of Dragoons, etc., etc.,” reads the caption beneath the full length figure. This particular reproduction is in the collection of the Library of Congress, part of their sizable collection of 18th century British prints and cartoons.
Born to noble, yet not wealthy, parents in Tonnerre, a small town southeast of Paris, d'Éon distinguished himself as an attentive student. As a young teenager, he moved to Paris, where he studied law and was admitted to the Paris Parlement, the most powerful appellate court of the Ancien Régime, at the young age of 19. A few years later, he was sent to Russia, where he acted in a double capacity. Officially, d’Eon was a diplomat to the Russian court, but behind the scenes, he worked with le Secret du Roi, an underground network of French spies.
By 1761, in the midst of the Seven Years’ War, d'Éon secured an appointment in the French cavalry and later the Dragoons, where his bravery was noted. Scholar Simon Burrows writes, “in the years that followed, d'Éon was rarely seen outside of his distinctive dragoon uniform, which he shed only with great reluctance.” In 1762, d'Éon was sent to England, officially as secretary to peace envoy the Duc de Nivernais, but with secret orders from the King to explore invasion routes into Britain. His spy skills ultimately proved unnecessary, however, and he partook in the negotiations of the Peace of Paris that ended the Seven Years’ War the following year. It was for this service that he was awarded the title “Chevalier,” of which d’Eon was immensely proud. Indeed, when d'Éon became Mademoiselle de Beaumont (a name d'Éon seems to have used intermittently), the cross of St. Louis was the only masculine accessory d'Éon continued to wear. D’Éon apparently preferred to remain in England and, around 1764, ignored a letter of recall from the French King.
Though legend has it that d'Éon presented at the Russian court as a woman, charming the czarina with elegant manners, the story is, in fact, just legend, likely fueled by d'Éon. The earliest reference to d'Éon’s change of dress dates to 1770, when d'Éon was around 42 years old. According to reports from the time, London gambling houses took bets on d'Éon’s gender, and the Chevalier often challenged those caught betting to duels. Numerous prints from the period satirize d'Éon’s dueling habits.
Scholars note that one of d'Éon’s conditions for returning to Versailles was wearing women’s clothes. It’s unclear exactly who insisted on this, but Burrows suggests that it was likely d'Éon; a female identity might have afforded d'Éon greater protection from kidnapping or assassination attempts. From then onward, d'Éon seemed to have identified as a woman. D'Éon, or the Mademoiselle de Beaumont, stayed in France until 1785, when he—or she—secured the King’s permission to return to London. It’s not entirely clear why d'Éon wanted to return to London, although it may have been to return to urban living, since the Chevalier had been exiled to Tonnerre almost immediately upon return to France.
Between duels, d'Éon was also extorting money from the French government. Apparently, the diplomat was in possession of a handful of state secrets that the French king believed to be valuable enough to keep hidden. D'Éon also refused to acknowledge France’s new ambassador to England, the Comte de Guerchy (the two had a bad history together, thanks partly to court politics and previous battlefield engagements). Instead, d'Éon launched a rather nasty pamphlet campaign against the Comte. One of the pamphlets included correspondence by the Comte, which proved rather embarrassing for France. England responded by banishing d'Éon from George III’s court. By 1775, France had had enough, and negotiated with d'Éon to return.
D’Éon’s 19th-century biographer, John Buchan Telfer, counted 19 surviving paintings or prints of the Chevalier; nearly all depict d’Éon in women’s clothing. Among the images that survive are a bust-length portrait by German painter Angelica Kauffman. Interestingly, Kauffman was d’Éon’s London neighbor and one of the period’s few successful female painters. Kauffman’s portrait depicts d’Éon à la turque, wearing an ornate headdress.
In 2012, a portrait of d’Éon wearing an elaborate feathered hat and dowdy wig by the British painter Thomas Stewart was acquired by Britain’s National Portrait Gallery. The Stewart canvas was initially thought to be a portrait of an unknown woman, yet curators thought there was something slightly off about the depiction—namely, a prominent five o’clock shadow on the sitter’s face. Curators quickly determined that the anonymous woman was d'Éon.
Though fame and adventure made d'Éon notoriously interesting to late-18th-century audiences, neither sustained the Chevalier financially. After returning to England, d’Éon earned money primarily by fencing; skilled with a sword, the spectacle of a woman fencing—and beating men—was undoubtedly an entertaining spectacle. But in 1796, d’Éon retired from fencing after sustaining a serious injury. The money quickly dried up.
D'Éon spent the last few years of life in a one-room London apartment, writing and rewriting an autobiography, which was never published. The former soldier, diplomat, spy, and celebrity died in poverty in 1810. After death, d'Éon’s male anatomy was rigorously documented by doctors who were eager to share the “truth” of the Chevalier’s, or the Mademoiselle’s, identity.
Header image credit: Library of Congress // Public Domain