This is an abridged version of a paper that I wrote for a History of Photography course I took in Fall of 2008.
The mysterious Countess di Castiglione, who commissioned hundreds of photographic portraits of herself from prominent Parisian studios, left a very prolific record of her life. In this paper I will discuss the way in which the Countess’s peculiar life gave her the agency to commission these photographs and control her self image. Due to her eccentric and fetishistic behavior, her photographs are generally bizarre and provocative. Using the ideas of feminist theory and gaze theory, I will discuss the way in which the Countess was able to use her social status and agency to obsessively construct her self identity before any one else could construct it for her.
I argue that the motivation behind having so many photographic portraits taken was her narcissistic and seemingly neurotic desire to preserve and document her beauty. Her apparent narcissism certainly stemmed from the fact that she was constantly receiving positive attention about her looks from both men and women. She was undoubtedly one of the most beautiful women of her time as Frederic Loliee says in his history Women of the Second Empire, “She was perfection. She enjoyed getting dressed up and making her presence known at exclusive functions such as royal balls.” She also took advantage of her sexual appeal by using her beauty to seduce some of the richest and most powerful men. Her frequent affairs with prominent men of the mid to late nineteenth century were clear indications of the power of her beauty and the way in which she affected men. Perhaps her obsession with documenting herself was a way of taking claim of her image and objectifying herself before any one else could. Being a prominent member of the court since the age of sixteen must have made her slightly jaded. Especially due to the fact that she was known more for being an object of desire than for playing the important political and social roles that she wished to play.
Though it was not uncommon for elite members of French society to have their portraits taken conveying different identities, the Countess’s photographs stand apart. They were not used for advertising or monetary gain and as Elisabeth Brofen says, “the photographs show with extraordinary clarity how self staging, apparently a safeguard and immortalization of the I, is accompanied by the destruction of the self” (156). La Castiglione’s obsession with her own self image led to a unique artist and model relationship that produced prolific amounts of fascinating photographs of a woman trying to define her self image using the medium of photography.
The advent of photography created an environment of quick and easy commodification. Instead of sitting for a painted portrait, patrons could go in and have their photograph snapped in a few minutes time. With the creation of the carte-de-visite, or calling card, people could disseminate images of themselves to whomever they chose. Though it appears as if the Countess never actually intended to circulate the unconventional portraits she deliberately pose for, she was undeniably concerned with making her own identity.
Photography also aided in the wide dissemination of pornography. Instead of taking photographs of the entire body, sometimes these illicit photographs would commodifying single body parts, like legs. In later photographs of the Countess’s legs as an old woman, the Countess overturns the notion of sexualized body parts by emphasizing her de-sexualized, aging body.
There is a tradition of women with some sort of agency, particularly political agency, commissioning their own portraits. As strong willed women with political agendas, these women used their agency to commission portraits of themselves in order to have control of the way they were depicted instead of letting other people have to opportunity of defining them. This, it seems, is very similar to what the Countess di Castiglione did with her series of self portraits. Instead of letting other people, particularly male artists or her male family members, decide how she would be presented to the public, she wanted to be in charge of her image. She, as a Countess, was also in a similar position of the possibility of accessing political power.
Though there is not a strong tradition of women with agency (the ability to act as she chooses) to commission unconventional or risqué portraits of themselves to create and solidify her own identity, there are some unique cases. This shows that, though the Countess is a particularly intriguing case, she was not the first woman to commission portraits to self-consciously create her identity.
Arguably the most intriguing photographs of the Countess are the photos in which she consciously makes the viewer aware of engaging in the act of looking. By countering the viewer’s gaze, the Countess questions exactly who is the subject and who is the object. Although she is the object of the photograph, in the photos where she is holding a half mask in front of her eye, titled Game of Madness, the Countess in turn makes the viewer both the looker and the looked at. The subject is almost always the person who has the power in the subject/object relationship. It is no surprise that the Countess would want to actively engage in the subject position, even in a situation where she is inherently objectified.
The radical and particularly intriguing aspect of the gaze photos of the Countess are dependent entirely on the time period in which they were created. During the Second Empire women in France did not have many freedoms and their agency in the arts depended entirely on their access to money. As a woman for whom money was not an issue, the Countess was able to commission portraits of herself that were not necessarily conventional or socially acceptable. Another reason why she could have these portraits taken of herself was due to her very intimate relationship with Pierre Louis Pierson. Perhaps if she had not developed such a strong friendship with Pierson she would not have been able to convince another photographer to take these risqué or scandalous photographs of her, regardless of how much money she offered.
In many ways it seems as if the Countess was ahead of her time. She was unknowingly, or perhaps very deliberately, engaging in a critical discourse that involved questioning the gaze and the position of women in 19th century French society. As a member of female aristocratic minority with agency in the arts, the Countess and her hundreds of photographs give scholars insight into the life of a woman who did not always play by the rules and was a product of almost every aspect and intersection of life in 19th century Paris, not just that of the upper class elite.