The Countess of Castiglione: The Creation of a Legend (James Hyman Gallery, London)

In early June I visited photographer Dafydd Jones at James Hyman’s new gallery location in Mayfair. Before leaving I had a quick look at the Countess of Castiglione portraits, which James had organized in preparation for the upcoming exhibit.

First off there is a tremendous amount of history here. All of the portraits were taken with the assistance of Pierson (born in 1822), who along with his partners, the brothers Léopold Ernest (born in 1817) and Louis Frédéric Mayer (born in 1822) achieved fame in Paris, and eventually became imperial court photographers. 

The first photos of the countess were taken in July of 1856, and the collaboration with Pierre-Louis Pierson eventually led to over 400 portraits (though I’ve heard there were a total of 700).

The Countess organized and titled the photos herself: La Sultane – La Comtesse de Castiglione; La comtesse de Castiglione – L’innocence, variation sur La Reine D’Etrurie; La comtess de Castiglione – Portrait en robe blanche. The photos were framed silver gelatin prints and a handful were enlarged painted photographs, illustrated with gouache and mounted on cardboard. Most photos measured 9 x 10 cms or 14.5 x 9.5 cms. All were striking, and ingenious, and I felt like I was looking into a pretend world and stepping into a time capsule from another world at the same time.

Obviously the countess was from another time altogether, a time that no longer exists: the 19th century aristocracy of continental Europe. Born Virginia Elisabetta Luisa Carlotta Antonietta Teresa Maria Oldoini in 1837 to Tuscan nobles; Oldoini was considered to be one of Europe’s most beautiful women, and in 1854, at age 17, married Francesco Verasis, the Count of Castiglione.

Both sides of her family were powerful and connected; a cousin was Camillo Benso, the Count of Cavour, who was also the Prime Minister of Sardinia. Camillo was very ambitious and wanted Napoléon III – the Emperor of France – to support the unification of Italy. Napoléon III was a constant womanizer and stuck in a loveless and unhappy marriage to Empress Eugenia. Camillo sensed opportunity, and using his married cousin’s beauty to further his agenda, sent Virginia and her husband to Paris, where the countess was to act as a spy and a seducer of the emperor. She was successful on both parts. 

Eventually the countess became an enigmatic figure and a swirl of drama engulfed her; no doubt aided by her constant affairs with the elite of France and Italy (she also had a brief affair with the Italian king Victor Emmanuel II). She had many nicknames, including “la divinia contessa,” and the piercing “shallowest woman in Europe.” Despite her mystique, she was greatly misunderstood by the general public. Her methods were methods of her own but she was undeniably effective. Though the affair with Napoléon III ended in 1860 by 1861 the Kingdom of Italy was unified and declared a united nation-state.

Virginia devoted decades of her life to her portraits with Pierson, leaving behind a well documented and immense body of work. All of the compositions fit into one of three periods of her life: the beginning of her influence in French society (1855-1856); her life after the affair with Napoléon III (1861-1867) and her final years (1893 -1895).

The countess died November 28th, 1899 at the age of 62, but after her death her fame escalated in popular culture and history. In 1913, collector and poet Robert de Montesquiou, whose portrait was painted by Giovanni Boldini in 1897, wrote her biography, La Divine Comtesse: Étude d’après Madame de Castiglione. 

Two films were made about her. The first in 1942; directed by Flavio Calzavara, “The Countess of Castiglione,” featuring Doris Duranti, Andrea Checchi, Enzo Biliotti and Renato Cialente. The second, “The Contessa’s Secret,” produced in 1954; directed by Georges Combret and starred Yvonne De Carlo. In 1975 the Metropolitan Museum acquired 275 of the Countess’ photographs presumably from the collection of Robert de Montesquiou.

There is no doubt the Countess of Castiglione was the world’s first selfie connoisseur, but she was also so much more: an aristocratic spy; a strategic advisor; an expert in brinkmanship and seduction, and a trailblazer with the new technology of photography. She was also one of the most influential women of her era. 

As James Hyman states in the exhibit: “she stands at the start of a line of conceptual, performative, inventive self-portraitists such as Claude Cahun, Francesca Woodman, Hannah Wilkie, Jo Spence, Sophie Calle, Gillian Wearing, Cindy Sherman and Tracey Emin, and is an inspiration for numerous younger artists, among them Zanele Muholi and Heather Agyepong.” 

The Countess of Castiglione: The Creation of a Legend, at the James Hyman Gallery, 48 Maddox St, London. June 10 – August 26, 2022

Images courtesy of James Hyman Gallery. Special thanks to James Hyman. Article by Chadwick Hagan, Chair of Hagan Arts Trust