Countess Virginia Oldoini Verasis di Castiglione (1835–1899)
Albumen silver print from glass negative
Image: 9 x 6.6 cm (3 9/16 x 2 5/8 in.)
Mount: 12.9 x 9.1 cm (5 1/16 x 3 9/16 in.)
Mat: 21.9 x 15.9 cm (8 5/8 x 6 1/4 in.)
Gilman Collection, Gift of The Howard Gilman Foundation, 2005
Not on view
Unlike Nadar, who found his public among the cultural elite, the firm of Mayer & Pierson catered to personalities famed for their notoriety, to the socially prominent, and to the court. Established in 1855 by combining the interests of Pierre-Louis Pierson with those of Léopold Ernest Mayer and his brother Louis Frédéric, the firm specialized in portraiture and became the most sought-after studio of the Second Empire. In 1862, Mayer and Pierson were appointed photographers to Napoleon III. Virginia Oldoini, Countess Verasis de Castiglione (1837-1899), created a sensation when she appeared in Paris in 1855, having been sent by the Italian statesman Cavour to win Napoleon III over to the cause of Italian unity by "any means she chose." A statuesque beauty with a flair for drama, the countess was the mistress of Napoleon III and a much-talked-about ornament of the lavish balls so prevalent during the period. After the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, she led an increasingly secluded existence, which gave rise to fantastic speculation as to her affairs. The countess's raging narcissism found in photography the perfect ally; the firm of Mayer & Pierson produced over seven hundred different images of her. In a reversal of roles, the sitter would direct every aspect of the picture, from the angle of the shot to the lighting, using the photographer as a mere tool in her pursuit of self-absorbed, exhibitionistic fantasies. This image, in which the countess, seen from above emerging from a gown of black tulle, her hair braided in a diadem, was made during the first years of her collaboration with Pierson. The gown, whose décolletage she has exaggerated, reveals the full line of her shoulders and the swell of her breasts. The position of the right arm shows off her elbow, whose firmness and fullness were compared to a particularly prized peach, while the left arm rests on the dress as if detached from her body, a marvelous piece of sculpture. A cool eroticism permeates the image, the countess offering herself for our contemplation--confident, enticing, yet aloof. Fascinated by her persona, a poet and esthete of a later generation, Count Robert de Montesquiou, collected no fewer than 433 photographs of her (now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum) and wrote a book dedicated to her memory. He titled this photograph, which he once owned, "The Gaze."
Inscription: Inscribed in pencil on mount, verso TL to TR: "Cadre marquetterie // de Haas // marge bois gris // bevau argent"; Engraved metal plaque on frame, verso TC: "[in small caps] Portrait de la Comtesse de Castliglione // offert à Madame Brooks // par le Comte de Montesquiou"
Virginia Verasis, née Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione, (Estate sale, Hôtel Drouot, Paris, June 26–29, 1901); Count Robert de Montesquiou-Fézensac, Versailles; Mme Romaine Brooks; [Oltremare S.A.]; Gilman Paper Company Collection, New York, March 16, 1992
One of the finest portraits of a woman in the history of nineteenth-century photography, this photograph was taken by Pierson during the first stay of the Countess in Paris in 1856 and 1857. Bathed in light, the bust rising from a corolla of dark tulle, the Countess offers herself to her admirers, returning their gaze with amusement. The pose is a classic one: Ingres used the gesture of the left hand in the portrait of his wife and of Mme Moitessier; Winterhalter painted the Empress Eugénie and her ladies-in-waiting emerging from layers of chiffon. In a most remarkable way, the portrait captures the moment at which the sitter shows her complete control over the photographer's lens. Gone is the fixed stare, a common feature of early photographic portraits resulting from the lengthy exposure time. The Countess engages the viewer with a newfound immediacy.
Three pictures from this session are known; their negatives are lost. Prints of "The Gaze" are in the Alinari collection and in the Nigra album. The photograph's title was given by Montesquiou. [PA; "La Divine Comtesse", p. 175]