When she first visited the photography studio of Mayer & Pierson in 1856, Virginia Oldoini had already become notorious in Paris society. Married at 17 to Italian Count Francesco Verasis di Castiglione, she had been dispatched to Paris to convince Napoleon III to support Italian unification — instead, she promptly became his mistress.
Their dalliance was brief but helped establish her reputation as a beautiful and enigmatic seductress.
She was enthralled with the study of her own beauty, and collaborated with photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson on over 400 self-portraits.
While Pierson operated the camera, the pose, dress, setting and angle were all conceived by the countess. She was also involved in post-production, directing the printing of the pictures and often painting on top of them herself.
The countess posed in the elaborate and luxurious gowns that she wore at court, reenacting her moments of greatest triumph. She soon expanded her oeuvre to include scenes and costumes inspired by theatre, literature and myth, and even rather voyeuristic shots of her bare feet.
As she grew older, she retreated from high society and became an eccentric recluse, living in an apartment with the curtains drawn, only venturing outside at night. She died in 1899 at the age of 62, but her extensive and distinctive record of herself endures.