The Countess Castiglione

The French court photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson took more than 400 portraits of the Countess Castiglione, considered the most beautiful woman of her time,during a 40-year collaboration. The photographs,commissioned by the countess and created under her supervision,were both self-advertisement and self-expression as well as revolutionary. They covered three distinct periods—her first entry into French society, 1856–57; her return to Parisian life, from 1861 to 1867; and toward the end of her life, from 1893 to 1895.

Virginie Oldoïni who married the Count di Castiglione was notorious for being Napoleon III’s mistress, a scandal that led her separation from her husband. During her two years relationship with the French emperor (1856-1857), she was known for her flamboyant manner and elaborate dresses at the imperial court. In July 1856, a few months after her arrival to Paris, the countess made her first visit to the studio of Mayer & Pierson, one of the most sought-after portrait studios of the Second Empire. Most of the photographs depicted the Countess in her theatrical outfits, including depictions as Beatrix, Salambo, Judith, 18th century marquise, nun, prostitute, Queen of Etruria, Queen of Hearts and Chinese woman. A number of photographs exposed her bare legs or feet–the features that she was most proud of–and were very risque for her time.(In these photos, her head has been cropped out.)

Her affair with Napoleon III ended and bankrupt, she exiled herself to Italy in 1858, where she was involved in the Italian Unification. Three years later, she returned to Paris, once again as an influential fixture and a femme fatale. After the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, she lived an increasingly reclusive and eccentric life in an apartment on the Place Vendôme, venturing out only at night, shrouded in veils–her beauty slowly deteriorating. Senile and bewrinkled Countess again commissioned 70-year old Pierson to take more photos of her, replicating the poses and dresses she modeled thirty years earlier.

“The hair was thin and the teeth were gone, only the costuming was the same. The confident gaze is replaced by a deep sadness. Her Baroque grandeur has decayed into a listless parody of herself. One can almost hear a small still voice reciting, “mirror, mirror, on the wall, who’s the fairest one of all” — all to no avail…” wrote Max Henry. She dreamed of showing her oeuvre at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in a retrospective titled “The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century.” She died on November 28, 1899, at the age of sixty-two.

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