The name of Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, is linked to Second Empire political and courtly intrigues, to the glamour of the Court at the Tuileries and to the splendour of a cosmopolitan Paris, the world capital of fashion and pleasure.
Born in Florence in 1837, Virginia Oldoini married the Count Verasis de Castiglione very young. A cousin of Cavour and a close relation of Victor Emmanuel of Savoy, king of Piedmont, she was sent to Paris in 1856 to plead the cause of Italian unity with Napoleon III.
Her arrogant beauty was a sensation at court. During the same year, she became the emperor's mistress. In 1857, after a heart-breaking rupture, she went back to Italy. She was not to come back to France to settle there permanently before 1861. Separated from her husband, she then had many liaisons in the world of finance, aristocracy and politics.
After the fall of the Empire in 1870, she lived more and more secluded from the world, keeping around her an atmosphere of mystery, exciting the curiosity of Robert de Montesquiou who developed a real fascination on her. They were never to meet, but he collected numerous objects previously belonging to her. In 1913, he published a book entitled La Divine Comtesse. La Castiglione died in 1899, aged 62.
Virginia de Castiglione left a real imprint on her epoch: photographs of her regularly illustrated publications of the time. She was behind some five hundred photographs made during a forty-year collaboration (1856-1895) with the photographer of the Imperial Court, Pierre-Louis Pierson (1822-1913).
Contrarily to common use, the countess chose her costumes, expressions, gestures and even the angle of the shot. She also defined the end product: portrait, calling card or painted print. She named each shot, sometimes after characters or scenes of contemporary theatre or opera: “Scherzo di Folia” after Verdi's opera, Un ballo in maschera, for instance.
At a time when the genre of fashion photography did not yet exist, she proved to be original and inventive. She defined attitudes that were always imposing or graceful, sometimes eccentric, in a variety of settings - apparitions as the Queen of Hearts, Queen of Etruria, Carmelite etc. - thus distinguishing herself from conventional photographs of the beauties of the time.
La Castiglione's artistic aims and intentions anticipated the work of today's photographers, one of the most remarkable of which is Cindy Sherman. Her predilection for photographs entirely painted according to her detailed instructions initiated a genre that is being rehabilitated. Indeed, contemporary artists apply in the same work hybrid techniques and products that would seem incompatible. Two examples are the German Gerhart Richter, who paints on photographs, and the American Joël-Peter Witkin.
The Musée d'Orsay exhibition highlights La Castiglione's narcissistic personality and her innovative spirit as she elaborated her portraits, through a hundred or so photographs. An emblematic figure of Second Empire high society, she can be seen represented by the sculptor Carrier-Belleuse, by such painters as George Frederic Watts and later Jacques-Emile Blanche; personal belongings, plaster casts of her legs, fans, letter cases, etc all contribute to evoke the refined and precious world of the Divine Comtesse.