Day 205 of Colourisation Project – November 28
Challenge: to publish daily a colourised photo that has some significance around the day of publication.
Long before selfies became ubiquitous and annoying, one woman, the Countess of Castiglione, is proof that narcissism predated Facebook.
Notorious for being Napoleon III’s mistress and a special agent for the cause of Italian unification, Virginia Oldoini, Countess of Castiglione, better known as La Castiglione, was an Italian courtesan, who availed herself of the relatively new photographic industry to help build and create her own legend within her lifetime. In so doing she left an indelible print in the history and scope of photography.
In an extraordinary 40-year collaboration with the French court photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, Virginia Oldoini invested all her resources to produce more than 700 portraits of herself. Widely considered one of the most beautiful women of her time, the photographs covered three distinct periods of her life: 1856–57 – her first entry into French society; 1861 to 1867 – her return to Parisian life; 1893 to 1895 getting towards the end of her life. Pierson was still taking photos of her when he was 70-years old.
Oldoini’s objective was to capture and re-create for the camera the defining moments of her life. She took editorial and artistic control of the images out of the hands of Pierson, even to the point of choosing the camera angle. She called all the shots. (pun intended)
Most of the photographs portray her in various elaborate dresses and theatrical costumes, representing various biblical and literary characters such as Beatrix, Salambo, Medea, Lady Macbeth, Judith, a nun, a prostitute, Anne Boleyn, Queen of Etruria, Queen of Hearts and even a corpse in a coffin.
Today’s image is one of those. Entitled L’Assassinat (The Assassination), Oldoini portrays the biblical Judith entering Holoferne’s tent, dagger in hand ready for the kill.
Her vanity knew no bounds. She would send albums of her portraits to friends and admirers. Totally self-absorbed and fascinated by her own self-image, she assumed that others would be as well.
In her declining years Oldoini lived an increasingly reclusive and eccentric life in an apartment on the Place Vendôme. She had her rooms decorated in funereal black. All mirrors were removed and the blinds kept drawn. Confronting her advancing years was too much for her. She didn’t want to have to face her mortality and slowly deteriorating beauty. And she didn’t want others to confront it either. She would only leave her apartment at night time shrouded in veils.
Oldoini had hoped to show her photos at the Exposition Universelle of 1900 in a retrospective titled The Most Beautiful Woman of the Century. But death got in the way. Oldoini died from a brain hemorrhage this day, November 28, 1899 in Paris. She was 62 years old.
Oldoini saw to it that her legacy would endure through the ages via her vast photographic oeuvre. Indeed, it has.
“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, The Mirror of Art