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The 19th-Century Countess Whose Vain Selfies Pioneered Photography

Virginia Oldoini went down in history as one of the most self-absorbed femme fatales. However, her vanity actually invented a genre in photography that is still very much alive.

In today’s modern world, selfies have become one of the main ways we introduce ourselves to others. It’s become one of our most effective tools to sell ourselves mainly because we’re in control of what aspects of ourselves we’re showing the world. However, we tend to think about the selfie as something completely of our time, but in fact, theoretically speaking, it’s a practice that’s been around since the invention of photography (some people like calling self-portraits in art a primitive form of the selfie). Well, today we’re going to talk about the woman considered the queen of selfies and a true pioneer of photography in general.

Her name was Virginia Oldoini, and after marrying Count Francesco Verasis da Castiglione, she acquired the title that would make her famous: Countess of Castiglione. She was born in 1837 to an aristocratic family in La Spezia, Italy. As was the custom for aristocratic girls, she was raised to marry into a noble family to add to her family's wealth. However, after marrying at the age of seventeen, a bigger opportunity came, and her family plans changed. It all had to do with one of her cousins, a very powerful and well-connected man, who knew the one and only Emperor Napoleon III of France. 

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In 1856, Virginia was sent to Paris to win the King’s affection and become his mistress, which she achieved quite easily since she was said to be quite a beautiful, cultivated, and charming young woman. The power she gained through this liaison was so big that she was soon connected with some of the most powerful international leaders (it’s even said that she was the one who convinced Otto von Bismarck to spare Paris from a Prussian invasion during the Franco-Prussian War). Moreover, her new role allowed her to know what true wealth meant. But of course, she became drunk with luxury, determined to live her best life, and one of the luxuries that eventually came to define her was photography, an art that was still in its infancy.

Her glamorous new life became an addiction of sorts, and along with the excessive adulation she received, she really started believing that she was the most beautiful woman the world had ever seen. The access she had to photography (something that not many were able to have) soon made her obsessed with capturing and reproducing her beauty. So, she hired the Mayer & Pierson studio, who mainly photographed the aristocracy for really special occasions and only did a couple of photos once in a while. But Virginia’s obsession would make them work at a pace they didn’t even know was possible.

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As was mentioned before, photography was still in an experimental phase, which made it highly expensive. Still, there are more than 400 portraits of herself, and it’s believed there were even more. For the Countess, photography became her preferred medium for creativity and art. She planned every single detail in the picture, including lights, set, and her own poses. When the picture was printed, she would paint on it to create the effects she had envisioned. In other words, she was her own muse, and her art became a reference for portraiture in the years to follow. Soon, her unique photographs were all over Paris, and she would give them to men as tokens of love, or to people in general, as gifts from the one and only Countess of Castiglione.

The Countess became so fixated with her beauty and youth that, as the years went by, the idea of losing both became more than an obsession: it was a matter of life and death. Thus, photography, became a way to immortalize that beauty before it was too late. This is when she started taking more photographs with much more production, direction, and care. She also started playing with new artistic elements, stage outfits, and even more daring and theatrical poses that clashed completely with the stiff and sober style of photography at the time.

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The same way it happens nowadays, what pictures portray can sometimes be very different from reality, and the Countess of Castiglione’s case was exactly that. Many people disliked her for her lavish lifestyle and her unhealthy obsession with herself. Her marriage was definitely over, her connections weren’t as strong as they had been, and little by little, she lost herself in this obsession. When her beauty (or at least her good years) were gone, she secluded herself to mourn that loss and what she thought was her only asset in life. She removed all mirrors and put black curtains all over her apartment at Place Vendôme. It’s said that she would only leave her home at night, while wearing dark veils, so nobody would recognize her.

26 years went by, and she kept living that reclusive lifestyle, but near her last years, she went back to her love of photography. She had a studio set in her apartment and started taking pictures of herself once again. However, her expression showed despair, sorrow, and emotional instability. She died in Paris in 1899 at the age of 62, but right before her death, she attempted to exhibit all her photographs in an exposition called “The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century” at the 1900 World Exposition. She was rejected by the organizers. 

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The Countess of Castiglione went down in history as a femme fatale, obsessed with luxuries and herself, but her contributions to the art of photography are rarely mentioned. Not only did she invent artistic portraiture, but she also introduced the use of determined lights and even experimented with angles at a time when cameras had to be set still. Sure, she was a vain and narcissistic woman, but as it often happens in the art world, those overflowing passions were channeled and transformed into a current that’s still relevant to this day.

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Anna Coleman Ladd: The Woman Who Gave Back Self-Esteem To Mutilated Soldiers With Facial Prosthetics

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