Virginia Oldoini (1837–1899), born to an aristocratic family from La Spezia, entered into an arranged and loveless marriage at age seventeen to Count Francesco Verasis di Castiglione. Widely considered to be the most beautiful woman of her day, the countess was sent to Paris in 1856 to bolster the interest of Napoleon III in the cause of Italian unification. She was instructed by her cousin, the minister Camillo Cavour, to “succeed by whatever means you wish—but succeed!” She caused a sensation at the French court and quickly—if briefly—became the emperor’s mistress. Separated from the husband she had bankrupted by her extravagances, she retreated to Italy in self-imposed exile in 1858. She returned to Paris in 1861, however, and once more became a glamorous and influential fixture of Parisian society, forming numerous liaisons with notable aristocrats, financiers, and politicians, while cultivating an image of a mysterious femme fatale.
In July 1856, the countess made her first visit to the studio of Mayer & Pierson, one of the most sought-after portrait studios of the Second Empire. Her meeting with Pierre-Louis Pierson led to a collaboration that would produce more than 400 portraits concentrated into three distinct periods—her triumphal entry into French society, 1856–57; her reentry into Parisian life, from 1861 to 1867; and toward the end of her life, from 1893 to 1895.
Fascinated by her own beauty, the countess would attempt to capture all its facets and re-create for the camera the defining moments of her life. Far from being merely a passive subject, it was she who decided the expressive content of the images and assumed the art director’s role, even to the point of choosing the camera angle. She also gave precise directions on the enlargement and repainting of her images in order to transform the simple photographic documents into imaginary visions—taking up the paintbrush herself at times. Her painted photographs are among the most beautiful examples of the genre.
While many of the portraits record the countess’ 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 theater, 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. 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. Unique in the annals of nineteenth-century photography, these works have been seen as forerunners to the self-portrait photography of later artists such as Claude Cahun, Pierre Molinier, and Cindy Sherman.