L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Saturday, December 28, 2013

La divine comtesse - the contessa di Castiglione

Virginie, contessa di Castiglione (March 22, 1837, Florence – November 28, 1899, Paris), born Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoïni, was an Italian aristocrat.  Intelligent and multilingual, celebrated for her beauty, her vanity, and her flamboyant dress, she became notorious as a mistress of the French Emperor Napoleon III.  (She had been instructed by her cousin, Count Cavour, to plead the case of a unified Italy with the erotically susceptible emperor.) When their affair ended, she went home to Italy, but returned to Paris four years later, where she lived for the remainder of her life. 

Voilée (Veiled).  The countess often posed standing on a low stool or platform in such a way as to make her figure
 seem taller, more statuesque, her trailing skirts hiding the fact.  This is an example.  Also, this shows the sometimes
quite makeshift nature of her costumes; her veil is actually just an unfinished length of chiffon yardage.
Detail of Vert (Green).
Elvira.  An allusion to a character in the Verdi opera Ernani.  One of the best known images of the countess.
This and the next three images are also from the Elvira series.

She was also an important figure in the early history of photography.  During her first sojourn to Paris in 1856, she began a close working relationship with the photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson; when she returned to Paris in 1861, the two worked together again.  She created dramatic and sometimes bizarre tableaux, often dressed in gowns or costumes she'd worn at important  moments while at the height of her fame.  Pierson took hundreds of images of the countess.  Her artistic motivation seemed to be little more than the memorialization of her famous beauty, but her work has had a great influence on many artists since.  Including this artist; my first show at Froelick Gallery, in 2002, was largely inspired by images of the countess.

L'Amoureux argenté, recently acquired
by the Portland Art Museum.


Une dimanche (One Sunday).
L'Ermite de Passy (The hermit of Passy).  In her one appearance in a tableau vivant, the
countess surprised the audience with this costume; they were, understandably, expecting
something really quite different.
As the Queen of the Night.
Beatrix.  Inspired by a play of the same name by Ernest Legouvé.
L'Assassinat (Assassination).
Photographed several years later, the countess first wore the costume seen
in this image and in the two following to a Mardi Gras ball in 1857.

The countess spent much time embellishing and modifying her photographs; they were often partly colored.  A few favorite images were given to a professional artist, Aquilin Schad, who painted in gouache directly on the photographic print, creating works of art that are charming in their own right.

La marquise Mathilde.
Again, photographed several years after the fact, the countess first wore this costume to a
masked ball in 1857; the "subject matter" of her toilette was an unveiled allusion to her
current status as the Emperor's mistress.
La reine des coeurs (Queen of Hearts).
Album page using photographs from the Elvira series..

After the fall of the Second Empire, increasingly preoccupied with her fading beauty, she had her apartment in the Place Vendôme draped in black, the blinds drawn, the mirrors covered; time stopped.  In the 1890s, not long before her death, having been forced to move to a three room apartment on the rue Cambon, she recommenced work with Pierson.  The images of the rheumatic, heavily made-up, bewigged countess, while showing little trace of her famed beauty, clearly indicate her poignant self-delusion that she is still as she once was; her last unrealized scheme, conjured only a few months before her death, was an exhibition of her photographs - five hundred photographs, covering almost forty years - at the Exposition Universelle of 1900, to be titled "The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century".

It was the countess, herself, who pinned these strips of paper to the print,
indicating how she wanted the image altered, her figure improved.
Alma.  Alma refers to the Hôtel de l'Alma, a former residence.
Rachel.  Titled in memory of the great French actress.


One of a number of images that include her son, Giorgio (1855-1879),
usually only a peripheral feature of the composition.
Scherzo di Follia (Game of Madness).  Probably the most famous image of the countess; it has become an icon of photography.

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