This writing originally appeared on the Haute Macabre blog on September 24, 2015.
The mysterious image above is one you are no doubt familiar with, thanks to countless Pinterest pins and Tumblr reblogs, and image-favoriting sites. I, myself, originally saw it on LiveJournal, approximately a million years ago when someone was using it as their user icon.
Are you aware of the identity of this glamorous enigma? I was not, for the longest time. Thanks to the sorcery of reverse image search functionality, however, the answer is easily found:
Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, better known as “La Castiglione”, was a 19-century Italian aristocrat dedicated to a cult of personal beauty, and just as narcissistic and self-absorbed as a Kardashian or a Kayne. The Countess was known for her vanity, her eccentricism, and her flamboyant entrances in elaborate dress at the imperial court, and among the aesthetes of fin-de-siècle Paris, her life was the subject of admiring and almost obsessive curiosity. She was described as having long, wavy blonde hair, a delicate oval face, and eyes that changed color from green to an extraordinary blue-violet. Her own third personal assessment reads thusly: “The Eternal Father did not know what he was creating the day he sent her into the world.”
A humble woman, indeed!
Egomaniacal celebutante jokes and comparisons aside, however, it is undeniable that she was a woman with a singular vision (Ok, so it was of herself) and who was well ahead of her time in terms of owning it and executing it.
In 1856, The Countess began sitting for Mayer and Pierson, photographers favored by the imperial court. Over the next four decades, she directed Pierre-Louis Pierson to help her produce 700 different photographs in which she re-created the signature moments of her life for the camera. “These days it is not considered pathological for people to acquire hundreds of photographs of themselves in a lifetime. But in the middle of the 19th century you really, really had to try.” notes Sara Boxer in a New York Times article from 2000.
This “goddess of self-love” fluctuated between two states of mind – queen and melancholy recluse; she had herself photographed as a frowning nun, as Medea with a knife, the tragic heroine Beatrix, Judith entering the tent of Holofernes, a drowned virgin, Lady Macbeth sleepwalking, a courtesan flaunting her legs, Anne Boleyn, Goya’s “Maja”, a nurse to her dying dog and as a corpse in a coffin.
The 50 photographs that make up “La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione”, an exhibition in the Howard Gilman Gallery at the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized by Pierre Apraxine in 2000, are, as one reviewer notes, “… not lovely. They are bizarre.” And to watch the countess evolve from self-obsessed coquette to morbid mourner, to follow “her restless preening from youth to the brink of the grave”, is mesmerizing.
Virginia spent her remaining years in an apartment in the Place Vendôme, where she had the rooms fitted out in funeral black, blinds drawn, mirrors banished – presumably so as not to be confronted with her advancing age and loss of beauty. In the 1890s she began a brief collaboration with Pierson again, though her later photographs clearly show her “loss of any critical judgment”, possibly due to her growing mental instability. She wished to set up an exhibit of her photographs at the Exposition Universelle (1900), though this was never to happen. On November 28, 1899, she died at age sixty-two, and was buried at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
And because I am nutty and can’t write about someone without wanting to dress them up myself (or even play dress up AS them), here are two interpretations of some somewhat modern-day Countess of Castiglione ensembles!
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