PRINT September 1999


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 which she lifted her skirts to reveal her scandalously bare limbs, images brought to public attention by Abigail Solomon-Godeau in her essay “The Legs of the Countess.”

Pierre Apraxine began acquiring photos of the countess in 1985 for the acclaimed Gilman Paper Company collection of photography. That quest will now form the bulk of a major exhibition of one hundred of her portraits and related images. “La Comtesse de Castiglione par elle-même” opens October 12 at Paris’s Musée d’Orsay. Conceived and curated by Apraxine, who worked with Françoise Heilbrun, chief curator of the Orsay, and Xavier Demange, the show goes on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in September of next year. The countess will at last receive the homage that she herself had planned but was ultimately forced to abandon with her death one hundred years ago.

Apraxine is a central figure in the world of photography. A courtly, soft-spoken man, the former Fulbright scholar was curator of the Baron Lambert Collection for Banque Lambert in Brussels and assistant curator of painting and sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art before joining Gilman in 1976. He honed his eye in the late ’70s and early ’80s, a time when few were interested in photography—and when auction prices were still relatively low. The standards of aesthetics and connoisseurship he is credited with developing for the medium were on prominent display in “The Waking Dream: Photography’s First Century,” a show of selections from the Gilman collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1993. With an attendance of around 185,000 people, the survey was a veritable blockbuster for a photography exhibition, particularly one with such a rarefied focus.

Although the countess may not have quite as much draw, the exhibition should add to the growing evidence of the role of women in shaping the medium of photography. In anticipation of the opening, I sat down with Pierre Apraxine in Gilman’s midtown Manhattan offices to discuss the “noble operator” and the images she left behind.

Carol Squiers

CAROL SQUIERS: When did you first see the portraits of the Countess de Castiglione?

PIERRE APRAXINE: It was at Galerie Texbraun on Rue Mazarine in Paris in the early 1980s. They were mise-en-scènes of the countess in one of her most famous costumes, as the Queen of Etruria. The images were steeped in the nineteenth century, with stilted, staged movement and theatrical costumes—it was everything I didn’t want to see in nineteenth-century photography.

CS: What did you want to see?

PA: Like everyone else, my interest was in artists like Gustave Le Gray or Henri Le Secq; they were appealing to a contemporary sensibility. The spare, austere composition, atypical for the taste of the period in which they were shot, was the thing that I liked. Like other American collectors, I was coming from contemporary art; we passed from that to photography.

CS: What happened to change your mind?

PA: Texbraun secured some photographs from the Braun family—the Mayer & Pierson studio responsible for her photographs had merged with the Braun studio in the 1870s. They were photographs from the end of her life—1893, ’94, ’95—when she went back into the studio and resumed posing. They were very disturbing, because you felt the narcissistic neurosis taking over, the lack of contact with reality. You wondered whether she knew what she was doing. That made them fascinating. I purchased several booklets of photographs at that point—1985.

CS: What happened next?

PA: I had the end of the story and I started looking for the beginning. I was already working on “The Waking Dream” exhibition. A dealer in Paris showed me one of the most beautiful portraits of her, called Le Regard [The gaze], done in 1857 during her first stay in Paris. It’s a masterpiece of that period. She is giving of herself, but at the same time she remains aloof. So now I had the beginning and the end. Later, in 1995, a group of works came on the market which I bought at auction in Paris. So every period of the countess’s involvement is represented in the collection.

CS: Tell me about the countess.

PA: She was born to an aristocratic family from La Spezia. Her father, the Marquis Oldoini, was a diplomat; her mother was from an old Florentine family.
Her maternal grandfather was an expert on law who handled the interests of the Bonaparte family in Italy. She was a distant cousin of Camillo Cavour, the minister of King Victor Emmanuel II of Sardinia and Piedmont. Her milieu was provincial but since childhood she had been exposed to high-level political intrigues. She was married young but without love to a rich, young widower, the Count Verasis de Castiglione. He seems to have been a devoted but not very intelligent husband who married her for the pleasure of having the most beautiful woman in Italy as his wife. In 1856 the couple went to Paris, where she became the mistress of Napoleon III. She was then at the peak of her social fame.

CS: How does she begin this project of the photographs?

PA: She made her initial appointment with the studio of Mayer & Pierson in July 1856. She probably met Pierre-Louis Pierson, who was particularly good at photographing women. He allowed his sitters to take poses that were natural to them; in most portraiture of the time the poses were very contrived.

CS: When was the work done?

PA: The work falls roughly into three groups: 1856–57, 1861–67, and 1893–95, although she had some photographs taken in the ’70s and did one session around 1885. She died in 1899. The most important body of work was realized between 1861 and ’67. The pictures are not dated, but her physical appearance and dresses give some clues as to when they were done. In the early years, ’56–’57, the portraits display certain period formulas. The poses are common to the recipes of the time, although some are very original, like Le Regard. She left Paris at the end of 1857 and returned in ’61. It was when she came back that she really enlisted photography in the service of her imagination and created her best work.

CS: You believe the countess is the author of these images?

PA: Yes. I think it’s really a collaboration between the countess and Pierson, but she’s obviously in control. She asks him to do things that have never been done before and he follows her. There is an experimental aspect to the work. There are formal novelties, such as shooting down from above or up from below. I think that the model and the photographer had a very good time inventing together. One idea leads to another and another—they play. But it had no real effect at the time on the development of photographic portraiture because most of the work remained unseen.

CS: She didn’t show the work to anyone?

PA: No, only to some friends and lovers, although she made a few exceptions for artists. She sent them all more or less the same images. The most interesting part of the work remained with her, but there was enough of it around, in select places, to keep her somewhat in the limelight.

CS: By the time she began the really interesting group of photographs, though, her time in the limelight was already past.

PA: Yes. She would have a social trajectory during the ’60s, although it would not be what it once was. But her mind went back incessantly to the period of 1856–57, and she relived those years of triumph through her photographs. That’s what the Queen of Hearts is, for instance—a celebration of her appearance at a ball in 1856, restaged in the early 1860s.

CS: Which she didn’t originally have photographed in ’56?

PA: Right. My collaborator, Xavier Demange, noticed that the way her hair was done and the dress was cut could only have been conceived in the ’60s. Then we realized that the painted photographs dated from the ’60s often referred to the period of 1856–57. The titles engraved on the negatives refer to ballet, operas, and plays she had seen in those two years. Photography helped her to go back to that peak period, where reality and her narcissistic illusions coincided. In a way, her drama was that she had illusions which reality had conspired to make real for a couple of years: She could believe her grandiose ideas about herself. Afterward, she would always return to that period—it was the only time she really lived her life in the now.

CS: How did an Italian countess become an important figure in Paris?

PA: She arrived in Paris probably in the first days of 1856, sent by Cavour to seduce the emperor, to keep him interested in the unification of Italy under Victor Emmanuel II. During the Crimean War, the kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia sided with the French, the English, and the Turks against the Russians. When the war ended, the peace settlement was negotiated in Paris, and the kingdom of Piedmont and Sardinia had a seat at the conference table. Cavour maneuvered the kingdom into the war against Russia precisely to get that seat, which allowed him to bring the question of Italian unity to the table. The countess appeared in Paris just before the opening of the Congress in April.

CS: She was a teenager; what kind of influence could she have?

PA: She was married at seventeen and was already a mother. She did seduce Napoleon III. But what influence did she have? Probably none in a direct way. However, she was an indisputable presence on the scene and added glamour to the Italian lobby. She was very beautiful and the press was beside itself with admiration—she really created a sensation.

CS: What was she doing while they were all sitting at the conference table?

PA: She had a cipher to correspond directly with Cavour, and she had her ear to the ground. She made powerful friends—the Rothschilds, Fould, the minister of finance. She was strange, mysterious, a bit of an enigma, so people didn’t know exactly what to do with her. Later she capitalized on her image as a sphinx.

CS: How long was she the emperor’s mistress?

PA: A bit over a year. In the game of European politics, she made the Austrian camp at the French court very nervous—Austria, which controlled the north of Italy, had a lot to lose if Cavour’s ambitions were realized. It was obvious she had entrée everywhere. But her role was probably more that of an informant than anything else. Of course, she always imagined a more exalted role for herself and saw reality through that role; she lived according to her illusions.

CS: Isn’t that the definition of that kind of lifestyle, to live in illusions?

PA: It’s difficult to see from here. She was a woman who wanted to live independently, which was not easy at the time if you didn’t have a powerful male figure in the background. She is the one who separated from her husband in ’58, after their stay in Paris; she had bankrupted him with her carriages, apartments, dresses, and jewelry. When she went back to Italy, she didn’t live with him. She just sent him away. She kept their son, then went back to Paris.

CS: Why did she leave Paris in 1857?

PA: She had basically become a liability for the emperor. She had been indiscreet and there had been an attempt on his life at her house when he was spending the night with her. She had no other choice but to leave.

CS: When did she do the now-famous photographs of her legs?

PA: Probably between ’64 and ’66. We use 1861–67 in the catalogue for all the photographs of that period. It’s too much guesswork to assign definite dates. I believe the legs belong to two groups of images a few years apart.

CS: If she’s giving her photographs titles from the ballet and theater, is that what influenced her to photograph her legs in the way a dancer’s legs were photographed?

PA: You have to imagine that she knew the photographs that were being done around her, the photographs of the dancers, the models in the nude, the little actresses who were one step removed from prostitutes—the images by which these women made themselves known were an inspiration for her. There is a series of photographs where she knowingly imitated a kind of “loose” woman at the opera ball, where everybody mingled, where people would start love affairs and prostitutes would look for clients. She was independent enough to go into theaters and other places that were off-limits to women of her class. She was not the only case of a society woman exploring the fringes and looking at the “other side” especially at women who were living off their beauty. Well-born women were fascinated by the freedom of the demimonde and the theatrical world where their fathers, brothers, husbands, and sons could go but they couldn’t. The countess was exceptional in that she not only went to see what was going on there but came back and decided to make photographs of herself playing such roles. That’s why the relationship with the photographer is so important. Once these documents exist, your reputation is at the mercy of whoever has them. She had to have an incredible trust in Pierson that he would not circulate them.

CS: What about the photograph of her posed as a nun?

PA: That’s the only photograph of her that was sold during her lifetime—she was asked to participate in a tableau vivant for the benefit of some charity. Tableau vivant was an art form in which society people performed for society, a kind of mixed-media theater. It was much more than just striking a pose—there were sets, music, choreography. She accepted the invitation on the condition that she would be the last to appear. Nobody knew what she would do. This was in April 1863, and she had just made a splashy entrance at a court ball in February as the Queen of Etruria. People bought tickets like crazy; the rumor was that she was going to appear as The Source by Ingres, meaning in the nude. She had a reputation for being the most beautiful woman of her time as well as for daring behavior. Rumors circulated that she had appeared in the nude for a privileged few, and she received anonymous letters daring her to show herself. The night comes. She was supposed to appear three times. The curtain rises and everybody is flabbergasted—here she is in the costume of a Carmelite showing only her face. People start to whistle—the whistling means of course that you don’t like an actor or actress. The curtain goes down, she is furious over being taken for an actress, and she disappears—and doesn’t appear again. People were outraged, because they’d paid a lot of money and didn’t get what they thought they were going to get. She got them.

CS: And what does that inscription “L’ermite de Passy” mean?

PA: She lived in Passy, a wealthy semirural suburb of Paris, and she called herself the hermit of Passy—meaning it was her choice not to see anybody, to be left alone. Of course, if you hide, people talk about you as much as if you appear. Her whole social dynamic at the time was to appear, disappear, appear again, and never act as people expected her to.

CS: Let’s go back to something you said earlier: that the countess had a reputation for appearing nude.

PA: That has to be qualified. In her social circle she would show parts of her body; she would show her feet at gatherings, say, at the Rothschilds’. A tabouret would be brought in and she would display the perfection of her foot, which was compared to those of Greek sculptures. At dinner in England she was once seated next to Lord Leighton, the Victorian classicist painter, and started to show him her arms. He admitted later that she was the most beautiful woman he had ever met, but also the most vain. There was indeed talk that she would sometimes enact some sort of partial striptease.

CS: Pierson was very proud of their work.

PA: Yes. Pierson wrote to the Comte Robert de Montesquiou that he had been the guardian of all the negatives for thirty-five years. The relationship between him and the countess remains a mystery and a very touching one. It’s rare that you have a relationship between a model and a photographer that lasts for almost forty years.

CS: When did she go back to Paris for the second time?

PA: In 1861. She established herself with her son in Passy, had a social life, but was shunned by the court. In 1863 she received an invitation to a costume ball at the Tuileries. She appeared as the Queen of Etruria and again became the talk of the town, but it was not the same uncritical adulation as before. She was no longer the emperor’s mistress. She was never an outcast—she went to exclusive houses, she traveled to England and was presented to Queen Victoria. But she was separated from her husband, she was independent, she was alone—it took a certain courage. Paris at the time was the only capital where she could live a life like that, because there lone women were tolerated if they were rich or titled and foreign. Being foreign, the usual standards did not apply. Still, while she lived freely, the fact that she did not play by the rules and behaved basically like a man was ultimately unforgivable

CS: Her husband died young, didn’t he?

PA: Yes, in ’67. She became a widow at thirty. And she was not in very good health. She went back to Italy shortly afterward and basically disappeared from the Paris social scene.

CS: When did she go back to Paris again?

PA: In ’72. While she was in Italy the Franco-Prussian War started, the French were defeated, the Second Empire fell, and the Commune occupied Paris, so she could not return. Adolph Thiers, the head of the provisional government, had to meet Bismarck to try to end the war. She was friendly with Thiers. It is with her help, through her contacts with the Prussian embassy in Florence, that the meeting took place. She was useful—but in her mind she played an essential role: the one who made Italy, who saved France. Again the narcissistic delusion, the grandiose image of the self. After the fall of the Second Empire, she hoped, to get the House of Orléans to reclaim the throne of Louis Philippe, but they did not have that ambition. Once again, her hopes to play a role near the centers of power vanished.

CS: Is that what the last photographs are about?

PA: No. I believe she did them for psychological reasons. She was going through a very rough time in ’93, ’94, ’95. She obviously used photography as a kind of—I would say, oxygen. In ’61 when she lived in Passy, her house was very close to the clinic of Dr. Blanche; the famous alienist, and he looked after her. When he died in August ’93, that must have created a tremendous shock for her. Two weeks later she was back in the studio.

CS: So making photographs was a kind of therapy.

PA: Probably. And she created some very beautiful, strange photographs. But she received another shock in ’94 when she was asked to leave her apartment on the Place Vendôme. She moved into a three-room place above a restaurant, without air, without light. Again she went back to the photographer. And all along there was the negative press. Already in ’69 it was rumored that she was mad. There was a description in an issue of Le Gaulois, a paper usually well informed, of a woman, the toast of Paris ten years earlier, having lost her beauty, wandering the streets, like a beggar: It seemed to describe the kind of woman she would become later, at the end of her life—and she still had thirty years to go. In the ’80s, everything connected with the frivolous period of the Second Empire, which brought on the disaster of the war in ’70, came under attack. In the ’90s the people from the period of the Second Empire started to publish their memoirs. She appeared in many of them in an unfavorable light. So she needed reassurance.

CS: What do you think she was trying to do in the last photos?

PA: The photographs at the end are incredibly poignant, because one does not know if they are meant to be self-conscious caricature or if she was deluding herself in believing she was still beautiful. There is one picture in which she is showing her arm in the mirror, and the way she looks at her arm, she seems to wonder, Is this what I have become? Or, on the contrary, look how beautiful it is. One cannot tell if she has totally lost it or if she has retained a critical sense. In a late photograph, her feet—she is lying on a sofa and she has put her feet against a cushion—are shown from the point of view of someone who’s on her deathbed, like a sculpture on a tomb. It’s unsettling. Here she is definitely seeing what she has become. There is another later image of her smiling with her hands joined. But it’s a demented gaze and a frozen smile, and her hands seem to be making a gesture that symbolizes the pubis. So one does not know what is really going on.

CS: What’s interesting to us about the countess and her photographs at this point in time?

PA: In contemporary art and literature, we have learned to piece together a figure out of fragments—to see the figure behind the fragmented mosaic. These photographs, too, involve a kind of building up to get meaning out of separate, discrete pieces, which is very contemporary. One photograph does give you a simple clue, but ten of them lead to a much richer, nuanced, multileveled reading. Take Nan Goldin—one photograph says something about its subject, but when you have twelve you start to see the world of the photographer herself. I think the work of the countess acquires depth of meaning when considered in its totality. To use a medium usually viewed as an authoritative record of reality in the service of the imagination—that is a very contemporary notion. And, of course, there is the idea of using the self-portrait as a vehicle for an imaginary self. You can go in many directions with that: Cindy Sherman, Yasumasa Morimura. In the case of the countess, though, the only thing she ever impersonates is her idea of herself. Impersonating is the right word here. One feels, looking at hundreds of images of her, that behind the facade of impassive beauty there is turmoil, panic, despair—a very modem condition!

In my essay for the catalogue to the upcoming show, I quote a description of the way the countess enters a drawing room and her husband leads her to a corner, where she placidly waits for the hosts and the guests to pay her homage. She is described as a great performer. The stage is the Parisian drawing room, where she produces herself, using her body as the material of her art. She was seen as Venus descended from Olympus, and she wanted to convey that sense of her as a being of a different essence. That was the game, then: photography in the service of a goddess! Doesn’t that sound modern? The use of photography to promote a legend, to create celebrity.

CS: How long did she stay involved with photography?

PA: Until the end of her life. In the very last year, she dreamed of an exhibition—500 photographs of herself—titled “The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century.” It was to take place in one of the pavilions of the Paris International Exhibition of 1900. She pestered her friends to send back the photographs that she had given them. Then she died in November 1899, so nothing ever came of the venture. But this delirious project shows, I think, that she knew she had accomplished something of value. There is the feeling that, for her, the self had merged with the photographs and that through them somehow she was assured of an afterlife.

Carol Squiers is senior editor of American Photo.