Let Me Take a Selfie
She was scandalous. She was shameless. She was drop dead gorgeous, and she knew how to work that to her advantage in every aspect of her life. She was a Countess, a mistress, and the ultimate influencer. She was an artist before her time, accidentally pioneering an entire movement, and she is believed to be the world’s first supermodel. Introducing the Countess of Castiglione, Virginia Oldoni.
Virginia was born on March 22nd, 1837 to a wealthy family of Tuscan nobility.
With long, blonde wavy hair and bright green eyes, she was strikingly beautiful, even as a child. As she grew, so did her beauty and she leaned into the attention, reveling in the many men who fawned over her on a regular basis. She quickly learned how to use her beauty and feminine energy to manipulate, even as a teenager. Her parents eventually married her off to Francesco Varasis, the Count of Castiglione, sealing her family’s place among the rich and famous.
Though she was a child bride, she was already no stranger to romance, or scandal. It was rumored that she had a steamy affair with a naval officer before her marriage to the count, and it’s possible that she used her beauty to entice other men before that.
While her parents used her glam to snag noble status, Virginia’s cousin was ready to use it for politics. Camillo Benso, the minister to the King of Sardinia, and Virginia’s cousin, approached her with a proposition she was all too excited to accept. He was working to unify Italy, and he needed the endorsement of the French King, Napoleon III. Knowing the effect Virginia had on men, she was the perfect pawn to play. Bored with her marriage to a man 12 years her senior and armed with his money and the glamorous gowns it bought her, she jumped at the chance of entering the French Court. Virginia was instructed to place herself in front of Napoleon and convince him to join the effort of unifying her home country and to “succeed by whatever means…but succeed”.
Knowing full well what that meant, she packed her best dresses and headed off to France, her husband trailing close behind to join her at court. Unaffected by her husband’s presence, she made her entrance and the legend of her beauty spread. She was a hit, the “It Girl”, compared to Venus emerging from the ocean, and referred to as “La Divina Contessa”. She quickly caught the eye of Napoleon, and without much effort on her part, she almost immediately became his official mistress. Their affair was no secret, they had no shame. They carried on openly, despite Napoleons pious wife and Virginia’s powerful husband. They were no match for The Beauty and The King. Virginia went as far as to flaunt her relationship with Napoleon in front of his wife in one of the most disrespectful of ways: She entered a grand party on his arm in place of the Queen. Virginia ditched the corset, dressed in sheer fabrics decorated with red hearts, and held her head and exposed bosom high as she entered the party on Napoleon’s arm. It’s believed that her “Queen of Hearts” dress was a dig at the Empress meaning that while she may have his crown, but Virginia had his heart.
These grand entrances became her statement. Always impeccably dressed in extravagant gowns or flamboyant costumes, Virginia was determined to be the belle of every ball she attended. And that she was. She entered parties, dressed to the nines, centered herself in the room and allowed the men to flock to her, all while ignoring the women. She was there to feed her ego, making friends was not a priority.
By this point Virginia was known by many titles: Countess, Divine Beauty, Mistress to the Emperor, Political Spy…and now, with her glamorous wardrobe and grand entrances to every party, she gained the title of Fashion Icon.
Determined to feed her vanity and freeze these moments forever in time, Virginia picked up the art of photography. She spent hours in front of the camera, dressing herself up, recreating looks and costumes. She posed with strategically placed props, directing the camera to shoot from obscure angles, creating unique shots. She used shadows, mirrors, and fabric to tell her stories, always peering eerily directly at the camera with those blue-green eyes that seemed to know every secret ever whispered. These photographs would become her legacy.
Her time as Napoleon’s mistress was scandalous, but short lived. After a few months, unable to stand her vain personality, Napoleon ended the relationship and Virginia went back to Italy. Around the same time, her husband, completely embarrassed by having been made a cuckhold, and furious about his wealth being squandered on dresses and photographs, left Virginia as well, calling the separation “irrevocable”. On her own and unafraid to do what she had to do to maintain her lifestyle, she travelled back to Paris and inserted herself back into high society by way of “entertaining”. She became such a desired courtesan that men such as the Marquess Richard Seymour Conway paid one million francs for a single night in her company. She didn’t stop at sexy affairs with rich nobility, she continued her photography hobby and began dabbling in what would be considered pornography by 19th century standards.
Get ready to clutch your pearls….
…She took photos of her bare feet and naked legs. The Betty Page of the 1860’s.
While tame by today’s standards, this type of photography was so scandalous at the time that she was forced to crop her face out of the photos to avoid social ruin.
Despite being dumped by her husband and the emperor, and despite her saucy lifestyle, she maintained an interesting hold on political affairs. Maybe it was the fact that she surrounded herself with powerful, rich men and got them talking. She was vain, but she was also truly brilliant, so she had a great understanding of war and political issues. Her original mission of convincing Napoleon to aid in unifying Italy was ultimately accomplished, even after their affair ended, and the split lands were blended into one kingdom in 1861. In addition to that, during the Franco-Prussian Wars, she managed to convince Prussia’s Minister President not to invade France, thus saving the country from complete occupation in 1871.
Virginia continued photographing herself, eventually pairing up with Pierre-Louis Pierson who helped her amass a portfolio of over 700 images. Driven by her own ego, she directed everything about these photoshoots, from the clothes she wore, to the props, to the angle of the camera. Pierre-Louis was essentially just there to hit the button. Taking this artform a step further, if she was unhappy with the way a photograph turned out, she would have it altered with hand painting, aka 19th century photoshop. A perfectionist and a control freak, she put hours and hours into her photographic image; she was obsessed with maintaining her reputation of divine beauty.
She used these photographs to communicate with the people in her life. She sent albums to those she was closest to, as a sign of her affection. I like you, here’s 143 pictures of me in my favorite dresses. She used them to perpetuate the legend of her goddess like looks, creating a bit of a following and fandom. She also used the artform to send threatening messages. After their separation, her husband threatened to take their child from her. The only thing she may have loved more than herself was her son, Giorgio. She doted on him, spoiled him, and even included him in many of her photos. The idea of her son being taken from her was infuriating. She responded to the Count’s threat with one of her own: a single photograph of her seeming to sneak around a curtain, holding a dagger against her skirt. In other words, try it and I’ll kill you. He must have believed her because he dropped the issue and she kept custody of Giorgio.
As the years passed, faced with her own mortality and her fading beauty, her photography style took a morbid turn. She posed in black gowns and veils, positioned herself as a corpse, and even used coffins and the corpse of her dead dog as a prop. She covered her windows with black curtains and forbid mirrors from her home. It was believed to be because she didn’t want to see herself age, nor did she want to let anyone else see it, however her reclusiveness became exasperated after son died from smallpox in 1879. She had wanted to take her photographs on tour, exhibiting them around the world, but after the death of her son, she all but gave up. She rarely left her house and when she did, it was only at night, and she covered herself completely from head to toe. She ultimately passed away, alone in her home on November 28th, 1899.
It wasn’t until after her death that her art became realized for what it really was. Often peering at the viewer through a frame, a mirror, or a camera, these playful poses anticipated one of the largest art movements to date: surrealism. Virginia is often credited as pioneering the movement, even being referred to as the “Queen of Surrealism”, however, scholars on the topic tend to disagree for one reason. She didn’t really do it for the sake of the art. She did it for herself, to feed her own ego. She didn’t seem to care about moving art or photography forward into the next century. She didn’t want to share her photos for the purpose of expressing an artistic point of view. She did it so that she could capture and immortalize her own beauty and youth, and so that she could collect the praise of those she showed them to for her own self-satisfaction. You can’t pioneer a movement if the art is not driving you.
Look, I get the argument, but…behind every artist, isn’t there always a little bit of ego behind the pieces? Isn’t there usually a need for validation? I, myself am a designer. I like making pretty clothes. I like feeling pretty in the pretty clothes I make. I like it even more when other people like the pretty clothes I make. I may not be self-obsessed, but I’d be lying if I didn’t enjoy the ego boost that comes with someone complementing my work. It’s just a little pretentious, in my opinion, to assume that just because the artist is vanity motivated, their product is just as shallow. Maybe it’s just me, but I feel a little defensive of Virginia on this topic. She was scandalous and brazen, completely vain, and self-absorbed, but she was also brilliant. She was resourceful and used the tools she was given to not only survive but thrive in luxury. She didn’t just pose in her photographs, she had complete creative control over every element of them. Her ideas and visions were innovative, her photos have an ability to evoke a whole spectrum of emotions from admiration to fear. Regardless of if she did it for herself or for others, there’s no denying the art, or her role in how the movement progressed after her death. Not only that, but the fans of her work were not only obsessed with the imagery she created, but also with her. So, Queen of Surrealism, sure, but also, she could be considered the world’s first supermodel.
Give the baddie the credit she deserves.
Brilliant, gorgeous, shameless, and frankly a bit underestimated, The Countess of Castiglione is easily one of the most interesting women in history. In a time when women were expected to comply quietly, she used what she was given to live her life in the spotlight, made powerful friends, and kicked off an entire artistic movement. While her obsession with her own beauty may have grinded the nerves of some, the product of that obsession has influenced not only photographic art, but also the fashion and modeling industry for the last century. Her life ended in tragedy, having outlived her child, and resorting to dark seclusion. Also tragic, is the fact that she never got to see the actual fruits of her life’s work and the influence it would have for the years to come, because while subtle and unrealized, her work paved the way for the art and fashion photography, models, and even women today. Rest easy, Queen.