From left, the countess, fallen from grace at the age of 56; admiring the view at Pierson’s studio, c. 1861; and one of the portraits in which she had been transformingly retouched by artists in Pierson’s studio.
At the time, the court’s reigning arbiter of taste was the Austrian princess Pauline de Mettemich, whose country then controlled parts of what is now Northern Italythe territory Cavour was aiming to recapture. Mettemich, an unfashionably willowy woman whom Degas evocatively captured in several portraits, compensated for her plain looks with an extraordinary talent for dressing. It was Mettemich, for instance, who introduced the imperial court to the work of Charles Frederick Worth, the Englishman who became Paris’s first great couturier. On initially catching sight of Castiglione, Mettemich recorded in her memoirs that she found herself ‘ ‘frozen before this miracle of beauty. Wonderful hair, the figure of a nymph, a complexion of pink marble. In short, Venus descended from Olympus. I have never seen such beauty, nor will I ever again.” Castiglione had also turned an even more illustrious head. Almost a month after her arrival, at a masked Mardi Gras ball, the countess and Napoleon began their romance.
Whatever the precise nature of their liaison, however, it pales beside Castiglione’s most enduring affair, which began later that year, when she first sat for what would amount to more than 400 sessions in front of Pierson’s camera. The result of this magnificent obsession remains one of the most fascinating testaments to one woman’s overweening vanity. Part Cindy Sherman in her ceaseless and complex visual inventions, part silver-screen diva in her demonic selfobsession and need for adoration, Castiglione with her sheer audacity continues to resonate in our own age of image-obsessed celebrity. Was it patriotism that motivated her, or merely ambition and narcissism? In addition to her calculated relationship with Napoleon in, Castiglione, in later life, also had sincere friendships and love affairs with adoring statesmen and writers, which suggests some substance beneath the surface. As a pretematurally self-possessed teenager, however, the countess kept any sign of depth well hidden.
In an attempt to chronicle her triumphs, Castiglione often re-created them in Pierson’s studio years after they had taken place. On Febmary 17,1857, for instance, she made one of her most provocative entrances, which Cora Pearl, the flamboyant English courtesan, later described in her racy memoirs. The Marquise de Gallifet, Pearl wrote, “came as a swan, but her breast lost its feathers quite early in the evening”; and the superb Russian beauty Varvara Rimsky-Korsakov made her entrance in a scandalously form-revealing maillot. It was the appearance of the teenage Castiglione, however, that was the sensation of the evening. Already known to be the emperor’s mistress, the brazen girl had dressed up as the Queen of Heartsa not-so-subtle allusion to the affair and a clear insult to the empress.
This spectacular costume, made from a dull golden moire, was trimmed with borders of heart-embroidered ribbon; a crown of hearts formed a halo in her elaborately coiffed hair. One large crimson velvet heart hung from her skirts, between her hips, prompting the empress to observe,“The heart is a little low!” Nevertheless, Castiglione liked the effect enough to painstakingly re-create the grand moment several years later in Pierson’s studio.
Other artists fared less well with such a demanding sitter. The countess was reputed to have slashed her portrait by Baudry when someone had the temerity to suggest that Castiglione and Pierson’s work together also included moments of risque photographic intimacy. In some of the images, she seductively allows her shoulders to emerge from clouds of tulle. In others, she is lying down, a thin shawl revealing the outline of her uncorseted breasts. There are also a number in which she brandishes her plump legs as she flirtatiously hitches up her skirts. Castiglione’s head has been cropped out in these portraits, but they would have been shocking at the time, given the nineteenth century’s rampant fetishizing of women’s legs and feet, which were usually tantalizingly hidden beneath crinoline skirts. Even to the contemporary viewer, some of these works have preserved an erotic charge.
Castiglione herself had some illicit source material in mind. Like other fashionable women in the highest court circles, the countess was intrigued by the world of the demimondaines, those well-kept prostitutes whose extravagant outfits and posturings she absorbed into her own repertoire. Castiglione even ventured into their darkly glamorous world, dining once in the company of Giulia Baruc-ci, who claimed to be “la grande puttana del mondo.” Unconventionally, too, for a court beauty, Castiglione did not have her dresses made by Charles Frederick Worth, whose famously dictatorial manner might have been at issue. Instead, her astonishing costumes were concocted by Madame Roger, dressmaker to the empress. Castiglione’s clothes lacked the finesse of Worth’s sophisticated creations, but they were invariably bold and graphicperfectly photogenic, in fact. But it was for her extraordinary hairstyles more than her clothes that Castiglione was most celebrated. Pierson even records some of these edifices from the backsurreal constructions that seem to defy gravity and sometimes logic. According to Castiglione’s first biographer, Frederic Loliee (The Romance of a Favourite), she also managed to upstage the empress by hijacking her hairdresser, Leroy, who was tricked into doing the countess’s hair in a design that had been intended for the empresssomething that, Loliee claims, caused the poor man’s death. And like the empress, who was obsessed with Marie Antoinette, Castiglione was fond of eighteenth-century dress, powdering her hair and having it styled high and full with plump sausage curls falling over her shoulders and back.
After little more than a year in Paris, however, Castiglione’s entrances began to pall. The emperor by then had already turned his roving eye to the Countess Walewska. Although Napoleon continued to engage in “diplomatic exchanges” with Castiglione, these came to an end after he was attacked by a gang of carbonari as he left her house once at three in the morning. Soon afterward, the countess found herself ostracized by the inner circles of the imperial court and by her husband, as well, who had grown tired of her freakish behavior. When Count Castiglione later threatened to claim custody of their son, she sent him a photograph that had been retouched to show her holding a dagger. The hubris that had motivated Castiglione during her triumphant conquest of Parisian society and the emperor could only have taken a severe beating by this unhappy turn of events. Out of shame, the countess went into self-imposed exile in Italy.
But in political terms Castiglione’s diplomatic exchanges appear to have paid off. Although her later claim that she “made Italy and saved the Papacy” might be somewhat self-aggrandizing, her cousin doctor Blanche, whose son was the Edwardian artist Jacques-Emile Blanche. Castiglione embraced these new friendships, for it would be another two years before she was invited back into imperial circles. The coveted moment finally arrived in the form of an invitation for a costume ball at the Tuileries in February 1863. There, Castiglione made yet another sensational entrance, dressed as the ancient queen of Etruria, in hieratic flowing draperies. Castiglione’s archrival Rimsky-Korsakov (another of the emperor’s mistresses) cuttingly observed that it was “a pretty costume, but that of a deposed queen.’ ’ The outfit was pretty enough, however, for the fashionable sculptor Albert-Ernest Carrier-Belleuse to immortalize her wearing it, with the garment’s draperies seductively arranged to reveal her bare arms. Pierson also captured the moment; he and the countess had renewed their photography project.
Regardless, Castiglione willfully continued to channel her dramatic talents into her portraits. One image from this time shows her admiring herself in a huge swivel mirror that Pierson placed in the studio so that she could study her poses during sittings. As Pierre Apraxine and Xavier Demange note in the engrossing catalog that accompanies the exhibit (September 19 to December 31), Pierson and Castiglione had a sophisticated understanding of how to convey emotion, drama, and movement in spite of the technical constraints under which the images were produced. In perhaps one of the most memorable photographs, Castiglione fixes a sly sideways glance on the viewer through an empty picture frame; behind her, you can see the instrument that was used to steady the sitter’s head for the lengthy exposures required. In others, poor, trembling little Giorgi called in to play a page to his regal motheris often caught out of focus, even when his nurse is on hand to hold his head for the camera.
Castiglione was also sensitive to the tricks that could be used to manipulate the content of her photographs. She often had her waistline painted smaller, and, to appear tall, she sometimes stood on a stool that retouchers later hid beneath an extra flounce at the hem of her skirt. In fact, Mayer and Pierson were celebrated for the skill and artistry of their retouchers, who often completely transformed reality by adding imagined backdrops, which included everything from a glimpse into a crowded ballroom to a conservatory with a thickly flowing fountain. As Apraxine points out, clients were delighted to have such highly refined representations for a fraction of the price of a painted portrait. Many images have elaborate instructions to the retouchers in Castiglione’s own hand, specifying precise colors to be added. She even painted some herself embellishing her image over and over again with the unsettling brush strokes of a child.
Castiglione’s relationship with her son shows that her vanity could also be maniacal. At about the age of seven, Giorgi was taken to Pierson’s studio, where, wrapped in a velvet cloak that fell from his shoulders, he was encouraged to strike coquettish attitudes. His mother, who insisted that he grow his hair to extravagantly effeminate lengths, had it dressed and trimmed with flowers in a disturbing imitation of one of her own hairdressing successes. Castiglione continued to infantilize him throughout his young life, and he remained her passive plaything, treated like a child so that she would never appear to age. This treatment, unsurprisingly, had disastrous consequences. Under the influence of an unscrupulous tutor, the eighteen-year-old Giorgi finally broke free and fled for Italy to claim his inheritance, taking many of his mother’s most compromising documents with him, with which he began to blackmail her. A deal was struck, and mother and son were eventually reconciled, but Giorgi died suddenly from an attack of smallpox in 1879, and the countess began to show signs of extreme mental imbalance.
In a new apartment, on the Place Vendome, she had the rooms decorated in funereal black. The blinds were kept drawn, and mirrors were banished so that she would not have to confront her physical decay. In this moribund atmosphere, she pored over Pierson’s testaments to her beauty and made a cult of her little dogs Kasino and Sandouya. Castiglione would leave the apartment only under the cover of night, shrouded in veils, so that no one would be a witness to her lost beauty. Small wonder that symbolists and aesthetes like Jacques-Emile Blanche, the poet Robert de Montesquiou, and the fabulous Italian aristocrat the Marchesa Luisa Casati became obsessed with this haunting vision, a decadent remnant of a period by then considered licentious and amoral.
Every now and then, Castiglione emerged from her hermetic life to be recorded once more by Pierson. The results are heartbreaking and reveal the extent of Castiglione’s self-delusions and dementia. In them, she has plainly lost her figure, teeth, and hair. Her hardened face is caked in whorish makeup, and her ramshackle clothes are those of a vagrant. Broken and arthritic in one, she lies on a sofa in a weird evocation of the temptress of old, while in another poignant study, she poses in a lavishly ermine-trimmed velvet coat from her glory years, now as pitifully crumpled and moth-eaten as she is. In a particularly macabre echo, she even had her bloated feet and ankles recorded by Pierson’s camera.
A few months before her death, the countess made a frantic last stab at immortality by devising a plan to mount an exhibit as part of the Universal Exhibition of 1900, Paris’s great world’s fair. She proposed to display under the title “The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century” almost 500 images of herself in her shining hours, which she had carefully preserved and assembled. On the eve of the new century, however, Castiglione died at the age of 62 and her scheme came to nothing.
Even her bizarre last wishes, which included the suggestive desire to be buried in a nightgown that she had worn at Compiegne, Napoleon in’s country house, in 1857, were ignored. Instead, the mementos of her life were sold at auction. Many of her things, how-ever, found appropriate homes. Scraps of the embroidery from the Queen of Hearts costume ended up in the possession of the wildly eccentric Marchesa Casati, Gabriele D’Annunzio’s muse, and Montesquiou bought the majority of photographs in the sale. The elegant book of homage that he published in 1913 might even have met with its subject’s favor. But more important, Montesquiou’s collection was later dispersed among museums, such as the Met and Compiegne, ensuring that, as the countess would have wished, her enigmatic portraits would remain a haunting testament to her alluring beauty.
if the nineteenth century’s great personalities, the Countess de Castiglione remains one of the most compellingly strange. She was the cunning cousin of Count di Cavour, the man behind Italy’s unification; a dazzling beauty who scandalized the beau monde of Second Empire Paris; and an exotic charmer who used her powers of seduction to briefly become the mistress of Napoleon III. But that achievement pales next to her greatest and most enduring affair, which began in 1856, when she paid her first visit to Mayer and Pierson, the favored photographers of the imperial court. For the next four decades, she collaborated with one of the studio’s founders, Pierre-Louis Pierson, during hundreds of sittings in an extraordinaryand often bizarre effort to memorialize her image through the then-fledgling medium of photography. This remarkable oeuvremuch of which will be shown this fall in an exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Artis a testament to one woman’s vanity, so obsessive that it eventually led her to madness.
Born Virginia Oldoini, the countess began her adventures on the international stage on Christmas Day, 1855, when she arrived in Paris with her husband, Count Francisco Verasis de Castiglione, and their infant son, Giorgi. Ostensibly, they were there to pay a visit to the countess’s cousin Maria Anna Walewska, whose husband, Count Alexandre, was the son of Napoleon I. In fact, the countess was a pawn in the campaign to unify Italy; Count di Cavour, the minister to Victor Emmanuel II, the king of Sardinia-Piedmont, had sent her there on a mission to win over the philandering Napoleon III to their cause. (“You must succeed, cousin,” Cavour wrote to her.
“Use whatever means you like, but succeed!”) Only eighteen, Castiglione was the paradigm of Second Empire beautyvoluptuous, with a pursed little mouth, prettily dimpled arms, and an abundance of fair hair.
The well-connected Castigliones didn’t have to wait long for an introduction to the imperial court. Within a few days, they were presented to Napoleon III and his empress, Eugenie, during an imperial ball. Castiglione’s entrances at parties and balls soon became legendary. Invariably late, she would have her husband escort her to a far comer of the room, where she would coolly acknowledge the rapt attention she had elicited. There, she would then wait arrogantly for her hosts to make the first introduction, showing emotion only when the emperor or the empress came to greet her.
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