Posted by: meghanhealy | September 20, 2010

Countess Castiglione

This post doesn’t pertain to Dickens and needn’t count towards my ten posts, as it is an entirely random tidbit that I found in my reading for a French class and thought seemed relevant to our discussion of gender and photography.

In “Manet’s Olympia: The Figuration of Scandal” (Poetics Today, 10.2 (–interestingly enough, he also cites Benjamin and Mulvey), Charles Bernheimer writes:

“Abigail Solomon-Godeau’s (1986)…analysis of the many photographs the countess Castiglione had taken of herself in the 1850s and 1860s, and again at the end of her life in the 1890s, is particularly instructive in this context, since these photographs represent a rare example of a nineteenth-century woman constructing images of herself for her own gaze. Solomon-Godeau comes to the conclusion that this famous beauty, who took an active part in choreographing her poses, could see herself only as an object of the male look. Her desire for self-representation is identified entirely with male desire for the sexualized object.” (275)

After running a quick google search, I realized that many of these photographs were familiar to me, although I was unfamiliar with the context in which they were taken. For me, they seemed all the more striking after our discussion about Browning and Dickens and questions of who controls the gaze, who commissions the portrait, who chooses the setting for a photo, etc.

Here are just a few of the photos:

Of further interest, the MET provides further information and photos from an exhibition:

“Considered the most beautiful woman of her time, the Countess de Castiglione was a special agent for the cause of Italian unification, the mistress of Napoleon III, and a mysterious recluse notorious for her numerous love affairs. She collaborated with photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson to chronicle her natural beauty, extravagant couture, public appearances, and private fantasies. This selection of more than ninety photographs, many of which were elaborately painted under her direction, tells an extraordinary tale of narcissism and delusion—and of a surprisingly innovative approach to photography.” ({A238C1C1-B848-11D3-936D-00902786BF44})


  1. I love these photos. Because I am a huge TV addict and anti-nerd (or unintellectual) when I read that a woman is in control of the male gaze on her I think of Jaclyn from Bravo’s Work of art. I wanted to upload a photo but I don’t know how.

  2. Oh, I remember that “work of art” (! I mean, sure, it’s from television, but I wouldn’t automatically discredit it as “unintellectual”…I’ve only seen the show a few times, but that particular piece was memorable to me as well.

    As for more photographs/art projects related to issues of the gaze, I am always remind me of this rather heavy-handed but effective (in my opinion) Barbara Kruger piece – I suppose in the time it came out (early 1980s?), the artist felt that it was a message she had to exclaim boldly; messages of feminism, art, and the [male] gaze never seem to get old.

    Bringing it back to the original post, though, the first photograph, of Countess Castiglione looking through the frame, is especially striking to me — it seems so modern!

  3. *sorry – that first link is supposed to be:

  4. “I am always reminded me of” — yikes, apologies again for lack of proofreading

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