Constructing Identity

Pierre-Louis Pierson and The Countess de Castiglione: Portrait Photography beyond the Daguerreotypical Ideal

by Anne Schwarz

Louis Pierson, Vengeance (1863-1867)

With the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 portrait photography became increasingly popular – so popular, in fact, that the French press spoke of ‘daguerreotypomania’ – and commercial portrait studios mushroomed all over Europe. The Daguerreotype produced a unique positive image that could not be easily reproduced, making this kind of portrait almost as exclusive and expensive as a painting. However, the status of photography as art was undermined when Frederick Scott Archer introduced the wet plate (collodion) process in 1851, which allowed the photographer to produce an unlimited number of prints from a single negative, usually on albumen (egg white) paper. By the 1860s commercially prepared albumen papers were readily available and as a result the medium became increasingly industrialized. Whereas before photographers had supplied an exclusive clientele with carefully produced daguerreotypes, they were now pressured into producing larger quantities of cheaper prints for the less discerning middle class. Some turned quantity into a virtue, like the French photographer Andrè Disderi, the ‘father’ of the cartes de visite, who used multiple lenses to make up to eight exposures on a single glass plate negative which could then be printed at once, thus significantly reducing production costs. Not everyone, however, was cut out for the new market and many photographic artists left the profession altogether, probably for the exact same reasons Charles Baudelaire discussed in The Mirror of Art:

The idolatrous mob demanded an ideal worthy of itself and appropriate to its nature – that is perfectly understood. …A revengeful God has given ears to the prayers of this multitude. Daguerre was his Messiah. And now the faithful says to himself: ‘Since photography gives us every guarantee of exactitude that we could desire (they really believe that, the mad fools!), then photography and Art are the same thing.’ From that moment our squalid society rushed, Narcissus to a man, to gaze at its trivial image on a scrap of metal.

(Baudelaire, 1859, p. 228)

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary defines a portrait as “a pictorial representation of a person usually showing the face”. Indeed, the face – considered the ‘essential sign of identity’ – was the key element in daguerreotype portraits, the accurate rendering of the subjects’ features its primary goal. However, it wasn’t long before photographers realized that a photograph was more than ‘just’ an accurate representation, it was an interpretative act, the goal of which was to record “the greatness of the inner as well as the features of the outer man.” (Cameron, 1996, p. 137).

Besides Julia Margaret Cameron, one of the few photographers to view photography as “a malleable tool in the service of imagination” (Appraxine & Demange, 2000, p. 12) rather than an apodictic statement of reality was Virginia Oldoini (1837-1899), Countess de Castiglione, who collaborated with Parisian photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, co-owner of Meyer & Pierson studio, on over 400 photographs. Interestingly, although the majority of portraits were commissioned by the Countess and executed by Pierson, the latter is thought to have contributed little – if at all – in terms of expressive content. It was LaCastiglione who assumed the art director’s role, even to the point of choosing the camera angle, and it was she who gave precise directions on the enlargement and repainting of her images.

The countess entered into an arranged marriage at the age of seventeen and was subsequently sent to Paris on a mission to insinuate herself into the imperial circle and bolster the interest of Napoleon III in the matter of Italian unification. She briefly became the Emperor’s mistress and retreated to Italy into self-imposed exile after the attempted assassination of Napoleon III in her residence, which saw her compromised and banished from court. Three years later, the Countess returned to France, where she made a controversial reappearance at a fancy-dress ball at the Tuileries dressed as the Queen of Etruria[1], “an imaginary character mixing historical references…with allusions to the founding myth of the Roman Empire” (Appraxine & Demange, 2000, p. 171). Her husband, Count de Castiglione, was so upset by the news of the scandal evoked by his estranged wife that he threatened to take their son out of her care, adding: “I want to spare myself…a status similar to that enjoyed by Georges Dandin.”[2] (Blaizot, 1951). It was then that Castiglione sent the Count a hand-coloured photograph, which shows her in a dark-coloured velvet robe, her hair dishevelled and cascading around her face and neck, grasping a dagger in her right hand. Matching the murderous look on her face, the portrait is entitled “Vengeance” and dedicated “Au comte de Castiglione/Reine d’Etrurie” (to the Count de Castiglione/ the Queen of Etruria) (Appraxine & Demange, 2000, p. 171). The Countess was fascinated by the stage and her love for the theatrical is reflected in her portraits; the luxurious gowns and immaculate coiffures, the gestures, gazes and poses were all studied for their dramatic effect. In “Vengeance” the Countess is dressed in a voluminous crinoline skirt in orange moiré under a black velvet peplum, the exact same infamous gown, in fact, that had caused such outrage at the fancy-dress ball. Her feet are bare and clad in sandals, something that was deemed unseemly, and her hair is falling loose about her shoulders. On her arms, ears, head and neck she wears jewellery made of gilded copper and from her wrist hangs a fan of peacock feathers on a gold mount (Appraxine & Demange, 2000, p. 171). In a series of photographs taken soon after the ball showing the Countess as the Queen of Etruria in various poses, Castiglione’s arms are bare, however in “Vengeance” her arms and shoulders are entirely covered by the velvet peplum, probably as a reaction to her detractors, who had described her costume as scanty and unseemly. In her right hand the Countess is clutching a dagger, the look on her face is murderous. The Countess has been ill-treated and ridiculed and the pose she strikes is that of a woman and mother determined to do whatever it takes to keep her enemies at bay. In the introduction to an exhibition catalogue issued by the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, Pierre Appraxine writes that Castiglione’s self-portraits are “at once an exorcism and a talisman, an anticipation of our own fears and obsessions.” (Appraxine & Demange, 2000, p. 13). Indeed, what is most striking about “Vengeance” (and many other of her portraits) is the underyling anguish, the air of powerlessness dictated by a male-oriented society, and the obscured sense of panic.

Castiglione’s self portraits, as narcissistic and self-absorbed as they may seem, are exceptional in that the Countess constructed multiple selves, which can be read as manifestations of the same woman (Smith, 1999, p. 104). This is even more remarkable since the idea that outwards appearance and identity are two different things – that identity is indeed something constructed, “something neither given nor found lurking in some ‘inner’ region beneath the social surface” (Angier, 2007, p. 80)- was predominantly entertained by artists in the mid-to-late 20th century. The Countess de Castiglione not only used photography as a vehicle for her “fictional biography” (Appraxine & Demange, 2000, p. 12), she did indeed “invest in herself as an image” (Solomon-Godeau, 1986) in an act of self-construction reminiscent of contemporary photographers such as Sophie Calle and Cindy Sherman.


[1] The Countess had attended bespoke fancy-dress ball wearing a ‘scanty’ tunic that left her arms and feet bare and “gaped when she made certain movements, revealing her leg from thigh to ankle.” (Metternich, 1922, p. 65).

[2]George Dandin is an impersonation of a husband who has patiently to endure all the extravagancies of his dame of a wife, who deceives him with the aristocratic Clitandre (Moliére, 1668, Georges Dandin ou Le Mari Confondu).

References and Bibliography (in aphabetical order)

Angier, R (2007). “Train Your Gaze: A Practical and Theoretical Introduction to Portrait Photography.” Lausanne:AVA Publishing SA.

Appraxine, P. and Demange X. (2000). “La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione”, New Haven and London:Yale University Press in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Baudelaire, C. (1955). “The Salon of 1859”, in The Mirror of Art (translated by Jonathan Mayne), Phaidon Press, p. 228.

Blaizot, G. (1951), quoted in Appraxine & Demange (2000), “La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione”, New Haven and London:Yale University Press in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, p. 171.

Cameron, J. M. (1996). “The Annals of My Glass House”, University of Washington Press, quoted in Beaumont Newhall, Photography: Essays and Images, Museum of Modern Art, New York, p. 137.

Metternich (1922), Correspondance, 9 March 1866, p. 65, quoted in Appraxine & Demange (2000), “La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione”, New Haven and London:Yale University Press in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Smith, S. M. (1999). “American Archives: Gender, Race and Class in Visual Culture.”, New Jersey:Princeton University Press, p. 104.

Solomon-Godeau, A. (1986). “The Legs of the Countess.”, reprinted in Fetishism as Cultural Discourse, Emily Apter and William Pletz, eds. (1993),  Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, p. 266-306.

Image source: Appraxine, P. and Demange X. (2000). “La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione”, New Haven and London:Yale University Press in association with The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.


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