A Rebel Pioneer of Female Self-Portraiture

The Countess de Castiglione, One-Time Mistress of Napoleon III, Spent Her Life Challenging Norms

19th-century photographic representations of women tend to reflect societal constraints — subservience, commodification, piousness and maternalism. But for Virginia Oldoini, the Countess de Castiglione, challenging norms became her life’s work. Considered one of the most beautiful women in the world, the countess collaborated on hundreds of self-portraits made between 1856 and 1895. Unique in the history of the medium, her photographic pursuits are now seen as precursors to the self-portraiture exploration of photographers like Cindy Sherman. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York recognized the novelty of this work beginning in 1975 and now has one of the most extensive collections in the country.

Understanding Napoleon III’s weakness for beautiful women, the countess was sent to France by the Italian prime minister to solicit support for the unification of Italy. Introduced to the French court in January 1856, the “pearl of Italy” set her sights on seducing Napoleon III. She wore revealing dresses and orchestrated dramatic entrances, finally winning his approval by June. Although her contemporaries were “rendered speechless by this miracle of beauty,” noting her appearance at gatherings was “like a goddess descended from the clouds,” her arrogance and disdain for perceived inferiors was legendary: “I equal the highest-born ladies with my birth, I surpass them with my beauty, and I judge them with my mind.”

Around the same time the countess began her affair with Napoleon, she launched another collaboration of a different sort — with photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, a partner in the well-established studio of Mayer & Pierson. With an enviable clientele of prominent personalities from around Europe, commissioned portraits of Napoleon III and the empress had cemented the studio’s commercial success and elite standing. Together — with the countess acting as producer, director and star — the two created more than 450 portraits over 40 years. Most of the photographs were kept privately by the countess, and she retained complete control over the negatives until her death — in essence, becoming the architect of her own image.

Photographs made from the countess’ first visits to the studio were traditional — initially. In one portrait, she wears a white dress, neatly coiffed hair, and stands stiffly posed, staring demurely to the side. But as the sessions progressed and the countess became increasingly more aware of the opportunities for self-expression, she began to experiment. In the portrait “The Gaze,” the countess looks confrontationally into the camera. Uninterested in conventional modesty, she leans forward on her right elbow — one of her most complimented features — fully exposing her bustline. Her public appearances were equally scandalous. When she appeared at a ball as the Queen of Hearts, critics commented that “the nakedness of her neckline, swathed only in the lightest gauze, revealed everything.”

The Turn to a Performative Approach

After her year-long affair with Napoleon ended and she was forced back to Italy, the countess returned to France in 1861. Her public appearances became fewer but more spectacular. In an effort to thwart her detractors, the countess dressed as the Queen of Etruria at one of her first dress-ball events upon her return to French society. Covered in flowing red satin and black velvet with her unruly hair cascading down her back, her “bare arms and feet, rings on her toes” caused quite a ruckus. Several months later, when she was asked to wear this dress at a private function, a crowd gathered in anticipation. When the countess finally presented herself, she was wearing the pious habit of a Carmelite nun instead!

Unique in the history of the medium, her photographic pursuits are now seen as precursors to the self-portraiture exploration of photographers like Cindy Sherman.

From 1861 to 1867, the countess’ fascination with her own image kicked into high gear. Controlling the angle of the shot, lighting, pose, dress, hair style, coloring and background, she reduced the photographer to little more than a tool for her imagination. In addition to recreating significant scenes from her life, the countess also explored various roles drawn from theater, opera or literature. With careful attention to costume, pose and facial expression, she could “become” any number of characters, from the doomed Anne Boleyn to a traditionally costumed peasant girl. The countess broke countless societal rules by posing in her private boudoir and by having her bare legs and feet photographed.

Painted portraiture was a specialty of the Mayer & Pierson studio, and the countess’ painted portraits are among the best. In “La Frayeur,” she created a mise-èn-scene involving a harrowing escape from a fire. Beginning with a print of the countess posing in the studio, the photograph was then painted, adding in background activity and decorative elements like the leaf garland to the dress. Her wishes were explicitly written on the back of the print: “the remains of a ball where a fire has started . . . the assembled company in flight . . . White satin dress, with high sheen, black and red grapes, dark green and red leaves . . .”

As her beauty faded, the countess became less interested in photography, thus ending the longest and most fulfilling relationship of her life. Obsessed with her own image, the Countess de Castiglione was more than a mere narcissist. She was a diplomat, an opportunistic fashion rebel and a pioneer in the self-constructed photographic image. In the end, the countess was true to herself, making it clear “I am not here for you. I am of a different essence.”

About The Author: Jane L. Aspinwall

Jane L. Aspinwall

Jane L. Aspinwall is the former curator and collections supervisor of photography at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Holding a PhD in art history and an MBA, she has authored and curated numerous publications and exhibitions on photography. Aspinwall is currently working on a project about the early work of Alfred Eisenstaedt.

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