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.
Since moving to Boston mid-June, I have been working for a temp agency, which has placed me in some really interesting administrative roles. On the side, though, I work for third party marketing companies as a Promotional Model/Brand Ambassador/Spokesperson. It is actually a really fun/interesting gig, as I get to interact with lots of different people and learn about some cool products.
Most recently I was promoting a new men’s shaving product at a wholesale retailer. (I’m not sure how much info I’m allowed to divulge on the internet, so I am going to be as vague as possible.) I was responsible for telling people about the new product and also handing out samples of the same brand’s shaving cream. The shaving cream had the same name/branding as the blades themselves, and was marketed towards men to use to shave their face.
I was handing out 2.5 ounce samples of the shaving cream to customers at the store, which is pretty darn good for free. I was shocked at the amount of people, specifically women, who asked me if the product was for men/sort of got offended if I tried to offer it to them. WHAT? It is FREE shaving cream. Just because it is marketed towards men does not mean that it will not work for you, as a female, to shave whatever you want to shave with it. I couldn’t get over it. Do people honestly think that a product won’t work as well, or even at all, if you are the opposite gender of the marketing target?
It’s amazing/scary just how successful companies are at creating false binaries. For some reason, some people (I am definitely not included in this, as I’ve used tons of men’s products, even men’s deodorant!) truly believe that products “designed specially” for one gender cannot be used by the other gender. Mind blowing. Seriously. Shampoo works on all hair, male or female. So does shaving cream. Shavers, too. And I must admit that the five blade comfort blades that were created for “men” looked pretty awesome for shaving my legs.
The creation and maintenance of false binaries is problematic and has led to the perpetuation of marginalization and oppression of certain groups based on race/class/gender. If products are separated dependent on gender, race, class, etc. it opens the door for value judgments. One product is more effective, better quality, etc. even though they are probably the exact same product in different packaging. Do you remember the old Secret deodorant slogan “strong enough for a man, but made for a woman?” Yeah, I think that pretty much says it all.
In high school I was a self proclaimed anti-feminist. This was because the idea had been planted in my head that feminists were, by their very nature, man-hating women with radical politics who burned their bras. It wasn’t until college, graduate school really, that I finally realized that there is a reason why feminism has been branded this way towards the younger generation of young girls and women: it has the potential to be incredibly powerful.
By making feminism something that you shouldn’t be excited to align yourself with, and my making feminist politics seem removed from the life of the average woman, feminism is contained. Once I finally, reluctantly decided to embrace feminism, I realized that there are many girls and women who are in the same boat as I was. I now feel obligated to share how feminism has changed the way I think and to try to make more women aware of what feminism can do for them and how they think about the world around them.
My fundamental problem with feminism from the ages of 13 – 20 was that I incorrectly thought feminism was hypocritical. I wanted to know why, if women were calling for equality, they weren’t championing humanism. I thought it was ridiculous to even acknowledge that gender divide and instead call for equality for PEOPLE, not just women. This was because I was incredibly naïve and had not yet realized that it is impossible to disregard gender difference. Through feminist art historical practices I was able to finally understand the value of feminism: as a tool to illuminate the ways in which women are oppressed due to the constraints they are forced to work in, which are different from those of men. By acknowledging the ways in which women were/are oppressed by patriarchial power structures, it opened my eyes to the ways in which gender, race, and class play an important roles, not just in the case of women, but in all marginalized groups.
I’m not really a girl power, “I am woman hear me roar,” type of gal, but I definitely do identify myself as a feminist. I think that I should be in charge of my sexual health and reproduction rights, I want to get paid as much as a man does for doing the same job, and I don’t want to support or perpetuate the normalization of domestic violence towards women. Are you with me on one…two… all three of these issues? Guess what, you’re probably a feminist, too! Embrace it!
If I’ve sparked your interest at all, check out Jessica Valenti’s book: Full Frontal Feminism: A Young Women’s Guide to Feminism and Why it Matters (I have to thank Professor Kelly Dennis’s office door promoting for this book recommendation!)