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The New-Old Photogenics: How the Countess of Castiglione Launched Portrait Photography

With all due respect to those noble Frenchmen who inadvertently huffed so much silver nitrate while inventing photography, recounting the self-obsessed origins of the camera and photograph may only be possible by looking at how these technologies...
June 4, 2012, 3:30pm

With all due respect to those noble Frenchmen who inadvertently huffed so much silver nitrate while inventing photography, recounting the self-obsessed origins of the camera and photograph may only be possible by looking at how these technologies integrated into our lives, and how our perceptions of our lives changed with their addition.

From the tech side, George Eastman liberated photographers from lugging around big silver plates and chemicals by developing film. But from an anthropological perspective, Eastman brought photography to the mainstream by simplifying the whole process to just one step for the consumer: "You press the button and we do the rest." Today, 124 years after Eastman introduced this slogan – and in a precarious moment for a photo-bombed Facebook, which recently acquired Instagram for a reported $948 million – cameras are ubiquitous enough that no meal ever needs be forgotten.


And while amateur landscapes, architecture, and artsy snapshots of dew-covered spider webs abound, it’s the portrait that really blows them all away in the 21st Century. By 2011, more than 100 billion photographs had been uploaded to Facebook. The vast majority of these are of people and their friends, children and pets.

The popular explanation for this is that we're all becoming unbearable narcissists tickled by versions of our online selves that threaten to overtake our real selves – our real lives – and drive us all into Wall-E-like seclusion, only facing the world via sharp downward angles and puckered lips to give us the illusion of a jawline and cheekbones. This impulse is older than the profile picture, dating back to photography's earliest days.

A Portrait of the Photograph as a Young Countess

Way back in the 19th Century, before Eastman freed photography into the wild and into our homes, one woman was already carefully cultivating herself in front of a lens. One woman was the media darling of an era older than "old media." She was a celebrity with all of the indignities and bitchy rivalries of any reality star of today. She was a pioneer of a new artistic medium who also happened to be an emperor’s open-secret fuck buddy. She was the prophetess of self-portraits, anticipating Frida Kahlo, Cindy Sherman and Anthony Weiner. She was the Countess of Castiglione.

The countess was a 19th century aristocrat who turned a personality failing into a place among the legends of early photography. In the medium's infancy, the countess directed over 400 pictures of herself from a studio in Paris. In her odd way she bridges the gap between the painted portait and Instagram, and has been called the first fashion model. Every teenager that carefully choreographs himself in the bathroom mirror with his phone is following in her steps. We are all La Castiglione, now.


Born Virginia Oldoini in 1837 to a wealthy family in Florence, Italy, she was married to the Count di Castiglione just before turning 17. Two years later, she was sent to Paris to plead the case of Italian unification to the Emperor Napoleon III. Without delving into European history too deeply, Italy was at this point still a loose collection of several states under the control of the Austrian Hapsburgs, the Bourbons in Naples and the Pope. The prime minister of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia, in hopes that a unified Italian state would both raise his own profile and (I assume) shorten his title, sent the charming, multilingual coquette to the French court with the instructions to "succeed by any means you wish, but succeed."

Whether it was for love, love of country, or just the countess's habit of trying to sleep with the most powerful man in the room (well, how did you think you become the liaison to the French court?), the two began an affair within weeks of meeting in 1856.

Before you muse, as I have, that it sounds like Kim Kardashian is the Countess of Castiglione of our present day, let me remind you that Napoleon III was the nephew of the original Napoleon Bonaparte, and he was the one who was known for being a short megalomaniac and thus makes a perfect Kayne West analogue. Still, the countess's reception in Paris does have a ring of reality television; clearly she was not there to make friends.


Indeed, it seems the countess was both extremely good-looking, and extremely self-absorbed. La Divine Comtesse, a collection of some 90 countess photos and scholarly essays published by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, has Princess Metternich, wife of the Austrian ambassador, "rendered speechless by this miracle of beauty: wonderful hair, the waist of a nymph and a complexion the color of pink marbles." And this was what the married women were saying.

No matter how rapturously the others praised the countess, they never seemed to be able to surpass her own self-assessment. "The Eternal Father did not know what he was creating the day he sent her into the world," as La Divine Comtesse quotes the countess, humbly writing in the third person. "He modeled and modeled, and when he had finished he looked at his wondrous work and was overwhelmed. He left her in the corner without assigning her a place. Meanwhile he was called away and when he returned he found the corner where he left her empty."

Granted, shy people sometimes come off as conceited, so when the countess stood silently at social events, ignoring women and only uttering occasional words to men, it's only prudent to consider that maybe she was just timid. That said, the countess also seems to believe she overwhelmed God himself. So when the same Princess Metternich says that "[the countess] seemed so full of her triumphant beauty, she was so preoccupied by it that after a few moments…she began to get on your nerves," that might actually be putting it nicely. Her personality was so off-putting that by November 1856, Madame Baroche reported, "nobody was sorry for her" when the countess fell and broke her wrist during a trip with the emperor and empress.

A Dagger to ‘the Present’

Part of what irritated everyone about the countess was the manner by which she carried herself. Her every movement and gesture seemed overly studied—perhaps Kayne West is actually the perfect analogue to the countess—and while this comes off as irritating in person, it translates into elegant and graceful photographs.

The summer after the countess arrived in Paris, she began frequenting the local photography studios that were popping up like Starbucks in '96. While it was only one of the some 150 studios in Paris, the studio of Pierre-Louis Pierson and Léopold Ernst Mayer had such notable upper-crust clients as the emperor and empress themselves. Pierson & Mayer's place was on a fancy street. It had a large, beautiful reception area, where the many gold-gilded elbows could rub. The pair also specialized in painted photographs, which not only allowed for color, but were also a sort of a proto-Photoshop, allowing better backgrounds, and frankly, better faces. July 1856 saw the countess's first shoot with Pierson, her partner for what became her obsession.


The first photographs they took together look pretty standard – woman-in-hat sort of stuff. But they very quickly evolve. Not only was the countess a natural subject, she also took to the notion of directing the shoots and the subsequent painting on the pictures quite quickly.

She began by focusing on costumes she had worn to specific occasions, recreating the moments of her triumph. Perhaps this somewhat validates her desire to constantly be posing, since any moment could eventually be recorded for posterity. Her famous "Queen of Hearts" outfit, worn to a ball in 1856 and perceived by many to be a pretty bold way to point out that she was sleeping with the emperor—the lower heart on the costume was rather suggestively placed—was recreated five years later as both photographs and painted photographs.

In order to create a painted picture, the photographers would project the 11 × 9 cm negative in a "solar chamber," until it was a faint 55 × 44 cm print. Then a portrait painter—many of them needing the work in a changing visual economy—would go at it with a brush or colored pencil.

The countess gave the painter Aquilin Schad very specific instructions for the newly imagined background and how the subject—always herself—should look. Out of context her directives read like poetry: "The remains of a balal where a fire has started. A chandelier on the floor, the assembled company in flight. White satin dress, with high sheen, black and red grapes, dark green and red leave." Thus a picture of the countess in the studio gets a background of people and the drama of, in this case, a fire.


This unmoored the countess's photography from the confines of the present, allowing her to pose as the Queen of Etruria and hold daggers and such. Biographers attribute the countess's desire to place herself into little scenarios to her love of the theater, and in a 2000 New York Times article Sarah Boxer likened them to Cindy Sherman's "film stills" series of the contemporary artist starring in non-existent films.

And while using available beautiful women to represent historical or mythical figures is one of the oldest tricks in the book – predating books by a good amount of time, in fact – the countess's work points to the differences between doing so in a painting and doing so in a photograph. In a photograph, the model and subject become indistinguishable. Yet the photograph, especially in the early days, is still completely composed and unnatural. In this thin wedge that is both you and not-you, something like a public persona is captured on the silver.

As with painting, photographic portraits aim at something beyond the mere appearance, so there are better and worse portraits. And with the exception of a certain rendering of Dorian Gray, eventually you won't look like any of them.

Her Last Legs: or, From Out of the Dark Room

High society seems to have left the countess before her looks did. Her affair with the emperor ended in 1857 after two years, and she returned to Italy, which (spoiler alert) soon did become a country. Accomplishing this mission may have resulted in a divorce, but it's nice to have a unified Italy.

Anyway, the countess returned to Paris with her son, of whom she was bizarrely protective. When the count attempted to get custody, she sent him a picture of herself posed as Madea, gripping a bloody knife. Boxer wrote that consequently her son became one of the most photographed children of the 19th century, even if that occasionally meant wearing a wig.


She fell further from social graces, and became increasingly reclusive. But she kept up her photography habit. Like The Beatles, now that she wasn't performing in public she could become more experimental in the studio, and began photographing just her legs or feet. (From what I hear there's a whole genre of this on the Internet, so fetishists too owe a debt to Oldoini).

She spent her last days living in a dark apartment, the drapes often drawn. Yet the world's curiosity continued. Much like Michael Jackson, before she died she was planning a glorious comeback exposition of her photographs called, "The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century."

During her final years, the poet and dandy the Comte de Montesquiou-Fénesac became obsessed with the countess, and with the idea of a great beauty locked away in a dark apartment. Because she was living in somewhat squalor and didn't want to receive the poet in such conditions the two never met. Montesquiou claims to have debated whether or not to go to the countess's funeral in 1899, finally deciding to go and arriving just in time to glimpse her face before the coffin was closed. That strikes me a little too convenient. But who knows?

In her will she requested that the newspapers make no mention of her after her death, but no one told the newspapers. The countess had a proper celebrity treatment post mortum, complete with fighting over her possessions and an estate sale where Montesquiou, her biggest fan and eventual biographer, could buy her nightgowns. She is buried in the cemetery Père Lachaise, where she was eventually joined by fellow camera enthusiast Jim Morrison.

If we take the countess as an extreme example, what does it teach us about our current, hyper-photo-documented age? That even if the public shilling of all your Facebook photos crushes any hope of you ever running for public office, hey, it’s still better than a sharp huff of silver nitrate? That even if you’re not into daggers and foot fetishism you’re still a total poser?

I don’t know. But one rather hopeful take away is that the countess was a narcissist without photography. The technology of the age didn't make her obsessed with her own image – she was already obsessed with it. The technology just left us a fascinating record of her obsession. And for that we are all La Castiglione, now.

Follow Ben @a_ben_richmond.