Did the cleverly posed self-portraits of this 19th-century countess pave the way for the contemporary selfie?

The Comtesse de Castiglione, a ravishing Italian aristocrat living in 19th century Paris, both captivated and scandalized the French court. By the 1850s, she was known as the most beautiful woman in the world and notoriously became the mistress of Emperor Napoleon III. But, despite her celebrity, it is the intimate passion of the countess that will define her as one of the most indelible figures in the history of photography. Over four decades, Castiglione created over 400 stylized and costumed self-portraits that reinvented the possibilities of the medium.

The Countess of Castiglione, Innocence, variation on the Queen of Etruria (1863). Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery.

Born Virginia Oldoïni into an aristocratic family in the northern Italian city of La Spezia in 1837, she was married, albeit lovelessly, to Count Francesco Verasis da Castiglione at just 17. The course of her life would change forever when, in 1856, Castiglione was dispatched to Paris at the request of her cousin, the government official Camillo di Cavour, to support the Italian unification campaign in France.

In the City of Light, she discovered the world of portrait studios and, in the summer of 1856, she visited the sought-after studio of Mayer & Pierson for the first time. Here, over the next three decades, she would create hundreds of photographic self-portraits, ranging from the decadent to the downright bizarre, in collaboration with owner Pierre-Louis Pierson. While Castiglione shared some of these images with lovers and friends like visit card photographs—small albumen prints, then exchanged by post and collected almost like calling cards – she kept many more in private, simply for her own eyes.

Now, the public will have the chance to see more than 50 of these private images for the first time. The James Hyman Gallery in London presents “The creation of a legend,the first-ever London exhibition of photographs of the Countess. The exhibition brings together dozens of images from several decades and offers a fascinating and sometimes harrowing account of Castiglione’s transformation from ravishing beauty to worn and ravaged by the passage of time.

“She goes from being a rich celebrity to losing her money and getting old. In the 1850s, there was something fetishistic about her. Her feet were supposed to be incredibly beautiful, and there were photographs, including one in the series, that were just close-ups of her feet,” Hyman amusedly noted.

Countess De Castiglione, Marquise Mathilde (1861-1867).  Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery.

The Countess of Castiglione, Marquise Mathilde (1861-1867). Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery.

JThe exhibition is divided into three periods. After her glorious entry into Paris, in 1858, Castiglione was deeply in debt and estranged from her husband and returned to Italy. Three years later, in 1861, she returned to Paris and attempted to revive something of her former glory, with varying success. In images from this period, Castiglione turns into assorted marvelous characters, sometimes playing roles from literature and theater that she jotted down in the photographs themselves. Other times she acted out visions drawn solely from her own imagination.

Although Pierson closed the shutter, Hyman points out that Castiglione was a conscious designer – she shot the images in incredible detail, from the costume and pose to the choice of camera angles and print sizes. She also gave instructions for hand-painting her photographs (sometimes even adorning the works with color herself).

“In the 19th century, there was an interesting dialogue between photography and painting. Many early photographers were originally painters, and early photographers were trying to claim photography as art,” Hyman explained. “In the case of the Countess, she takes this to an extreme, and with several of her photos, she enlarged the engravings, then commissioned someone to paint more so that in the end, the photographs look like paintings,” Hyman explained.

“The Making of a Legend” includes two hand-painted portraits of Castiglione, previously unknown and very rare. A picture, The Sultana (1865)is juxtaposed with another black and white photograph of her in the same pose, providing a fascinating juxtaposition.

The Countess of Castiglione, La Sultane (1865).  Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery.

The Countess of Castiglione, The Sultana (1865). Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery.

After the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, Castiglione was away from the camera for nearly 25 years. Her life became increasingly reclusive and unusual, and she was said to only venture out at night. In the 1890s, Castiglione suddenly reappeared in the workshop of Mayer & Pierson, resuming his practice of portraiture. The exhibit at James Hyman includes a number of images from those years, which are often startling to behold as the Countess descends into mental illness. These late portraits reveal austere, even bizarre visions – his famous hair, filled not with jewels but with branches. She died on November 28, 1899, at only 62 years old.

“You can trace it from its great glories to its decline. Although she died in her early 60s, in recent years she seems incredibly old,” Hyman said.

The Countess of Castiglione (1894).  Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery.

The Countess of Castiglione (1894). Courtesy of James Hyman Gallery.

Since her death, the curious saga of the Countess’s life has been heralded by a niche group of acolytes, some almost obsessive in their devotion. The most famous, the French symbolist poet Robert de Montesquiou, who feverishly collected his photographs (his funds now belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art) and spent more than a decade writing The Divine Countesshis 1913 biography of Castiglione.

Hyman hopes it will be time for a wider audience to embrace his vision. “What is so interesting about her, and so very contemporary, is that she photographed or had herself photographed again and again and again. It reminds me of Instagram or artists or celebrities who became famous for manipulating their images,” he said. “The Countess is, in some ways, a 19th century Cindy Sherman.”

‘The Making of a Legend’ is on view until August 26, 2022 at the James Hyman Gallery in London.

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