Pierre-Louis Pierson French
Aquilin Schad Austrian
Person in photograph Countess Virginia Oldoini Verasis di Castiglione
Not on view
In 1856 Virginia Oldoini (1837-1899), Countess of Castiglione, was sent to France in order to persuade Emperor Napoleon III to champion the cause of Italian unification by any means necessary. The unrivaled beauty quickly became notorious not only as his mistress but also for her flamboyant self-presentation. Between 1856 and 1867, and then again toward the end of her life, she collaborated with the photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson to produce some 400 photographs, many of which were enlarged and painted according to her specific directions. Momentous scenes from her life (some merely imagined) were mixed with episodes drawn from the theater, opera, and literature in service of a carefully choreographed personal mythology that is a fixture of today’s selfie-saturated social media but that was unprecedented in the nineteenth century. In La Frayeur, she instructed the painter Schad to embellish her portrait in the guise of a fancifully dressed ball guest who flees a conflagration. The exact source of the scene remains unknown, but it provides the perfect setting for a precocious fashionista to envision herself as a mysterious femme fatale.