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PRINT September 1999

NOBLE CAST: THE COUNTESS DE CASTIGLIONE

When she died in 1899, the Italian-born Countess de Castiglione left behind an eccentric body of self-portraits marking her progress through haute Parisian society. On the occasion of the first full-scale exhibition devoted to this curiously contemporary oeuvre, Carol Squiers talks with curator Pierre Apraxine about the scandalous seductress and the work of self-creation that served as her passport.

BEFORE CINDY SHERMAN, THERE WAS CLAUDE Cahun, and before Cahun, there was the countess. That’s a neat summation of a certain lineage of photography by and about women, but it’s not quite accurate. While Sherman and Cahun donned costumes and guises as a way to question gender stereotypes, their nineteenth-century precursor, the Countess de Castiglione, dressed up to enhance the role she assigned herself: international woman of mystery, influence, and seduction. Rather than Sherman, a more apt analogy might be Austin Powers—except the countess wasn’t kidding.

The countess sat for some 400 to 500 photographic portraits during her life, most if not all taken by Pierre-Louis Pierson, a Parisian whose studios catered to the court of Napoleon III. Of particular interest is the active part she took in making the photographs, and the variety and oddity of her costumes and poses—like the ones in

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