BY: CHARLOTTE LEFAVE
Born in 1837, the Countess was bold from day one. She capitalized on her natural golden blonde hair and stunning green eyes that were rumored to change into violet, eventually using them to capture the eye of the King himself. This woman ordered countless self-portraits, was constantly surrounded by mirrors, and wished to document her beauty for years after her death. She dressed to the nines and made sure that everyone knew she looked damn good whenever she made an appearance in court.
In a society that frowned upon any embodiment of female confidence or sexuality, the Countess of Castiglione stood out like a bedazzled thumb. Her legendary outfits and place beside the King of France left her widely disliked and envied for her position among her fellow aristocrats. She defied the boundaries that her culture set down for women and separated herself from the strict society by optimizing her self-image and exploring her passion for photography.
A pioneer of photographic adventure and surrealist exploration, she used the photographs to document important moments in her life and to play with the shifting of image and character, often portraying herself in fantastical roles of mythical creatures and mystery. Volumes of lush silk and velvety bows surrounded her in her portraits, often encompassing the entire frame of the picture while she gazed dramatically off into the distance, exposing delicate bones and flawlessly kept skin.
Her reputation for pouring a scandalous amount of money into her outfits and public image branded her as one of the shallowest women in all of Europe. In the Victorian era, vanity and self-adoration were frowned upon as a serious moral faux pas, and this coupled with her blatantly sexual position as the mistress of Napoleon III gave her an infamous reputation in the court. Despite this, however, she continued to draw attention and adoration with her magnificent costumes and confident attitude so that no matter how much she was openly despised by her peers, and even the Queen herself, she still maintained her air of sophistication.
The Countess of Castiglione has gone down in history as being famously self-absorbed and conceited for spending the majority of her fortune on her paintings and photography, but she actually sparked popularity in self-portraits among women, allowing them to embrace their beauty and explore their personal style. Even as she aged, she continued to photograph herself in lavish style, and before she died she had begun work on her one last exhibition, titled “The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century.”
In her wake she left behind her life’s work of hundreds of self-portraits she had done with photographers and artists, ones that she had directed, designed, and hand tailored, depicting her in her beloved costumes. They are still admired to this day, and though she was often painted as a narcissist and deeply self-obsessed, she achieved her goals of recognition and artistry. No matter how many people tried to shame her away from pursuing her passions, she never stopped trying new things and never allowed herself to listen to the negative voices around her.