Scherzo di Follia by Pierre-Louis Pierson (French, 1822–1913) – Person in Photograph: Countess Virginia Oldoini Verasis di Castiglione (1835–1899) – Date: 1861–67, printed ca. 1930 (via)

Virginia Oldoini, Countess Verasis de Castiglione (1837-1899), created a sensation when she appeared on the social scene in Paris in 1855, having been sent by the Italian statesman Cavour to secretly win Napoleon III over to the cause of Italian unity by “any means she chose.” Within months, the statuesque beauty was the mistress of Napoleon III and a much-talked-about ornament of the lavish balls so prevalent during the period. After the fall of the Second Empire in 1870, she led an increasingly secluded existence, which gave rise to fantastic speculation about her affairs. As the years went by, her mental stability declined and she ventured out only at night, shrouded in veils. The countess’s raging narcissism found in photography the perfect ally; Pierre-Louis Pierson produced over seven hundred different images of her. In a reversal of roles, the sitter would direct every aspect of the picture, from the angle of the shot to the lighting, using the photographer as a mere tool in her pursuit of self-promotion and self-expression.

Ermitage de Passy, 1860

  • by Pierre Louis Pierson

The Countess appeared in a tableau vivant only once. This was at a charity gala at the residence of Baroness de Meyendorff on 16 April 1863. The audience expected something titillating, but the Countess confounded their expectations by appearing as the Hermit of Passy, dressed as a Carmelite nun and kneeling in a grotto. Some weeks later she authorized the sale of a photograph commemorating the scene for the then unheard-of price of 50 francs per copy, the money to be donated to the poor (“La Gazette des étrangers,” 3 May 1863).

The photograph was taken in Pierson’s studio, probably a few days after the event. Three poses are known: one showing the Countess standing, turned toward the viewer, a faraway look in her eyes; another of her in profile, hands joined in prayer, in front of a makeshift altar; and one of the Countess seated, confronting the viewer with an unfathomable gaze. Only the photograph showing the first of these poses was released for sale, and it is intriguing that, despite the large number of prints in circulation, so few seem to have survived. A print similarly retouched in gouache is in the Alinari collection, dedicated by the Countess to the Marquis di Villamarina. An enlargement in the Montesquiou album in The Metropolitan Museum of Art is inscribed on the back in the Countess’s hand: “Sœur Eliza”