Here's a first: Thanks to some sleuthing and a five-o'clock shadow, London's National Portrait Gallery is now the proud owner of the first painted portrait of a crossdresser. We're going to apologize ahead of time for the pronouns in this article and obviously can't ask Chevalier D'Eon what he/she'd preferred to be called. (We're going with she, and probably think the more appropriate term would be transgender).
So if you look at the picture (above), you can sort of tell that's a man, right? If you ask us, it's not like the 18th-century was a particularly butch time for men, but apparently the portrait was described as "Portrait of a woman with a Feather in her Hat" from 1792, which struck struck dealer Philip Mould as odd. "The lady’s complexion was hard and cold, much akin to delicate complexions of the ladies as painted by Thomas Lawrence during that period. I was intrigued," wrote Mould on London Loves Business. Turns out, he was staring at "Chevalier D’Eon, a French diplomatist and widely regarded as the patron saint of transvestites."
As The Guardian's Mark Brown reports, despite cultural biases 18th-century Londoners respected D’Eon. It also turns out she was pretty badass. Writes Brown:
London society, not particularly known for its liberal tolerance, accepted D'Eon as a woman and she became well known for fencing demonstrations in theatres – dressed as a woman, of course.
D'Eon was not the most feminine of transvestites. Aside from the stubble, she hitched her skirt when she went up stairs and was rather course and boorish. None of that stopped pioneering feminist writers including Mary Robinson and Mary Wollstonecraft hailing D'Eon as a shining example of female fortitude, someone women should look at and aspire to.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.