Press release


September 19 — December 31, 2000
The Howard Gilman Gallery, second floor

Some 90 works from a remarkable series of photographic portraits documenting the public life and private fantasies of a legendary 19th-century beauty go on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art on September 19, 2000, in the exhibition "La Divine Comtesse," Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione. Commissioned by the countess herself and created under her supervision, the images — more than 400 in all — were the result of a 40-year collaboration, from 1856 to 1895, with French court photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson.

Drawn primarily from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum and the Gilman Paper Company Collection, "La Divine Comtesse", on view through December 31, presents for the first time in America the most important and surprising works from this extraordinary production.

While many of the portraits record the countess's triumphant moments in Parisian society, wearing the extravagant gowns and costumes in which she appeared at soirées and masked balls, in others she assumes roles drawn from the theatre, opera, literature, and her own imagination. Functioning as a means of self-advertisement as well as self-expression, they show the countess, by turns, as a mysterious seductress, a virginal innocent, and a charming coquette. Unique in the annals of 19th-century photography, these works have been seen as forerunners to the self-portrait photography of such contemporary artists as Claude Cahun, Pierre Molinier, and Cindy Sherman.

"This mesmerizing body of work," commented Pierre Apraxine, curator of the exhibition and curator of the Gilman Paper Company Collection, "orchestrated by the Countess de Castiglione, stands out as the first historical encounter of photography and narcissism — a theme that remains central to the art of our own age."

Virginia Oldoini (1837-99), born to an old and noble Florentine family, entered into an arranged and loveless marriage at age 17 to the Count Verasis de Castiglione. In 1856, then 18, the countess was sent to Paris by her cousin, the minister to King Victor Emmanuel of Piedmont, to bolster the interest of Napoleon III in the cause of Italian unification. Her beauty and vivacious manner caused a sensation at the French court — the Austrian ambassador's wife declared herself "petrified before the miracle of her beauty"— and she quickly became the emperor's mistress. Scandalized by his wife's flamboyance and indiscretion, the count demanded a separation. Although the affair with Napoleon seems to have been quite brief, ending in 1857, the countess continued to be a glamorous and influential fixture of Parisian society, forming numerous liaisons with notable aristocrats, financiers, and politicians.

After the fall of the Second Empire, in 1870, she lived an increasingly reclusive and eccentric life in her Paris apartment, venturing out only at night, shrouded in veils. Following her death, at the age of 62, her reputation as a woman of mystery and "divine beauty" endured, thanks in large part to the legacy of her photographic oeuvre. Among the aesthetes of fin-de-siècle Paris, her life was the subject of admiring and often obsessive curiosity. Prominent among them was Robert de Montesquiou, who spent 13 years writing her biography, La Divine Comtesse (published in 1913), and also assembled a large collection of her photographs, 275 of which were acquired by the Metropolitan Museum in 1975. Her life has also been the subject of numerous subsequent biographies and a 1955 film, La Castiglione, starring Yvonne de Carlo.

Still, the most evocative and celebrated record of the countess's life is the series of portraits by photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, principal in the Paris studio of Mayer & Pierson. By the 1850s this elegant establishment — described as a veritable "palace of photography" — had an international clientele that included the Rothschilds and Rossini, as well as members of the French imperial court.

Pierson's earliest photograph of the countess, The Black Dress (Martini di Cigala Collection, San Giusto a Rentennano, Siena), dates from 1856, a few months after her arrival in Paris, and shows her demurely posed before the camera, her hair in ringlets and wearing a black velvet evening gown. Soon, however, the images began to take on the elements of fantasy and personal display that would become hallmarks of her collaboration with Pierson. In a photograph of 1856-57, for example, she appears pale and solemn in the white garb of a nun. In the Queen of Hearts (1861-63), recreating her appearance at a masked ball, she is a personification of love in a voluminous gown and veil festooned with roses and hearts. In The Queen of Etruria (1863), also reprising one of her costumes for a ball, she is an exotic and imperious ruler from antiquity.

Provided with titles of her own choosing, and often elaborately painted under her direction, these images were frequently sent to lovers and admirers as tokens of her favor. However, Vengeance (1863-67, Martini di Cigala Collection), was sent to her estranged husband following his threat to remove their son from her care. It shows the countess, with disheveled hair and a murderous look on her face, grasping a dagger. In Scherzo di Follia (Game of Madness, 1861-67), one of the most celebrated images in the series, the countess peers at the viewer with one eye, through the black oval of a photograph frame.

Toward the end of her life, following a hiatus of some 25 years, the Countess de Castiglione resumed her sessions with Pierson. In Rose Trémière (1895), the 58-year-old countess appears girlishly costumed in a décolleté gown and wig decorated with roses. Le Pé (1894) is a photograph of her feet, a feature of which she had been especially proud in her youth, now distorted by age. The exhibition also includes a terracotta cast of these famous feet (private collection) and one of her lace fans.

"La Divine Comtesse" is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue — published by Yale University Press, New Haven and London, in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art — by Pierre Apraxine, curator of the Gilman Paper Company Collection, and Xavier Demange, with essays by Françoise Heilbrun and Michele Falzone del Barbarò. It will be available at the Metropolitan Museum's bookshop in a paperback edition for $24.99.

Educational Programs
A variety of educational programs, including lectures and gallery talks, will be presented in conjunction with the exhibition.

The Web site for the Museum ( will feature the exhibition.

"La Divine Comtesse" is a smaller version of the exhibitionLa Comtesse de Castiglione par elle-même, which was presented at Paris's Musée d'Orsay, October 12, 1999 — January 23, 2000.

"La Divine Comtesse" is curated by Mr. Apraxine, with the assistance of Malcolm Daniel, Associate Curator in the Department of Photographs at the Metropolitan Museum. Exhibition design is by Dennis Kois, Exhibition Designer, with graphics by Barbara Weiss, Graphic Designer, and lighting by Zack Zanolli, Lighting Designer.

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May 8, 2000

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