Issue #21  10/18/2000
The Met Scores With Two Shows: One On NYC Itself, and One On The Divine Comtesse

By Carol McCusker

Two exhibitions at the New York Metropolitan, "Art and the Empire City" (until January 7) and "The Divine Comtesse" (until December 31) are well worth taking in.

The former is a look at New York in the early to mid-nineteenth century as it flourished into the center of commerce and culture that it is today. Curated by 13 curators, it includes painting, prints, furniture, costumes, glassware, and, of course, photography. In a small room toward the end of the exhibit are numerous daguerreotypes of notable New Yorkers - women of station, newspapermen, P. T. Barnum with Tom Thumb — many made by Mathew Brady and Jeremiah Gurney. But the most memorable (and should not be missed) is Brady’s 1/3 plate daguerreotype of Walt Whitman. Stunning in his natural expression and grace, a palpable sense of the man in all his complexity and compassion comes radiating through. Not unlike the Lady of the second show.

The "Comtesse" features roughly forty-plus salt and albumen photographs taken of Virginie Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione, who was considered the most beautiful woman in Europe during her prime (that is for the viewer to decide) from her debut in 1856 to the mid-1860s. She was mistress to Napoleon III, and all-around political femme fatale. The exhibition is in three small rooms that are low lit (no doubt for the sake of the photographs). But such conditions create a by-product of intimacy as if we are entering Virginie’s private rooms to converse with her about fashion, beauty, and what she knew best, creating a celebrity image. The acclaimed Paris portraitist Louis Pierson took most of these images in collusion with the Countess who was intent on recording herself for reasons we can only speculate upon. She poses in elaborate hairstyles, wigs, enormous, dazzling gowns with cinched waistlines (barely containing her voluptuousness), dramatic poses and expressions, and tableaux vivants with the wild abandon of the ardent fetishist (there is even a plaster cast of her feet). By looking at these images, she (and we along with her) could ascertain how others saw her, thereby internalizing the image, and striking the best poses, expressions and attitudes when in the public eye. It was said that when she entered a room, she would stand very still (as if she had become her photographs), and rarely spoke, particularly not to women.

This is the kind of exhibition (and woman) that appeals to our 21st century sensibilities. Here the Countess has mastered, ahead of her time (or at least along with Nadar), a full understanding of how a celebrity and politician (she was both) could "spin" an image of herself in order to impress her audience. Sadly, when her beauty escaped her, and her estranged husband and only child died along with her financial stability, she was left with what many women, particularly of her appetite, unfortunately faced: a lack of place and purpose. "The Divine Comtesse" will not disappoint you; her grandeur, grace and audacity survive in these intriguing photographs, as does her spirit of self-invention, connecting her to our image-driven age.

Ms. McCusker was the Assistant Director at Vintage Works, Ltd. and the recent co-author of the new book, Paul Outerbridge. She is currently photography curator at the Harn Museum.