The Countess de Castiglione was a 19th century Italian noblewoman of phenomenal beauty. Not only was she gorgeous, she also possessed an intensely seductive magnetism and despite being married at age seventeen- she seduced Vittorio Emanuele II of Savoia, and Emperor Napoleon III.
The year she seduced Napoleon visited the famous photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson who photograped her in various costumes: A devious and menacing Lady Macbeth, a princess drowning in taffeta and powdered wigs, a tipsy barfly, a dour nun and an odalisque. Most shocking of all was when she permitted Pierson to photograph her bare feet and legs, shocking and risqué for the times.
Although her brazen attitude eventually found her banished, her legendary beauty, stories of her brazen seductions and her rare appearances at masquerade balls sent great ripples through French society.
When her looks began to fade, she retreated from society and had all her walls painted black and all mirrors were removed. She only left her dwelling at night, wrapped in heavy veils to walk her beloved dog. At 60 years old, she wrote of her youth: “The Eternal Father did not realize what He had created that day He brought her into the world. He formed her so superbly that when it was done He lost His head at the contemplation of this marvellous work.”
HENRI GERVEX (1852-1929)
Evoking sexual pleasure, Rolla was withdrawn from the 1878 Salon due to the scandal it provoked.
In the Spring of 1878, a month before the inauguration of the Salon, Rolla was brutally excluded from the event by the Beaux-Arts administration. Yet, Henri Gervex was a renowed painter.
Aged only 26, he had already been awarded a medal at the Salon, which in theory made him an “outsider” in terms of competition and therefore dispensed from the deliberations of the jury in charge of choosing the artworks exhibited. This time, the authorities decided otherwise as they judged the scene to be “immoral.”
Gervex found his inspiration in a long poem by Alfred de Musset (1810-1857), published in 1833. The text recounts the destiny of a young bourgeois, Jacques Rolla, falling into a life of idleness and debauchery. He meets with Marie, a teenager who found in prostitution an escape from misery.
Rolla is seen here ruined, standing by the window, his eyes turned to the girl sleeping. He is about to commit suicide by poison.If the scene was judged indecent, it was not because of Marie’s nudity, which in no way differs from the canonic nudes of the time. The attention of contemporaries rather turned to the still life constituted by a gown, a garter, and a hastily undone corset covered with a top hat.
Gervex might have been advised by Degas to put “a corset on the floor” so that the spectator may know this woman “is not a model.” Indeed, this disposition and the nature of the clothes clearly indicate Marie’s consent and her status as a prostitute.
Moreover, the walking stick emerging from the garments acts as a metaphor for sexual intercourse.