The Countess de Castiglione cared little for Parisian social conventions. “She would appear at gatherings like a goddess descended from the clouds,” wrote one 19th-century observer. “At her request, her husband would lead her to a quiet corner of the room where she would allow people to admire her as if she were a shrine.” Such monumental narcissism had its charms, however; at 19, she wielded considerable power as mistress to Emperor Napoleon III. Her fall from grace was equally swift—by the time she was 26, society had discarded her. After an eclipse of some 40 years, she died in 1899, alone and in poverty.
Yet throughout her life, her singular passion for her own person found an outlet in the new medium of photography. At the studios of the fashionable portraitist Pierre-Louis Pierson, she gratified the whims of her vanity, re-created the lost triumphs of her youth, and recorded the inexorable decay of her body. Over 400 images resulted from their collaboration; this small selection provides an intimate glimpse of her public conquests and private fantasies.
The pictures show her arrayed in ball gowns, nun’s habits, oriental garb, and peasant costumes, adjusting her hair before a mirror, kneeling in prayer, or reclining as a lascivious odalisque. Her plump arms and smooth shoulders emerge from massive toilettes piled high with lace, bows, and ribbons. Sometimes she uses her small son to adorn her beauty; at other times, she reveals parts of her body exhibited only by prostitutes and actresses—her rounded calves or well-turned, unshod ankles. Late in life, her gaze becomes tinged with madness, framed with wilted crepe flowers and faded finery. Yet she’s always the star in her solitary theater of the self, astonishingly bold and capable of captivating our attention.