Pierre-Louis Pierson - Photographs New York Tuesday, April 4, 2023 | Phillips

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  • This photograph shows Virginia Oldoini, Countess de Castiglione (1837-1899), who, in concert with several Parisian photographers, created a remarkable body of self-portraiture that defied the conventions of her day. A colorful and imposing character, the Countess was Naploleon III’s mistress and a flamboyant fixture in the upper echelon of Parisian society. Fueled by a profound self-regard, the Countess had her photographic portrait made countless times. Pierre Apraxine, the acknowledged authority on photographs of the Countess, and from whose collection this print comes, writes that her collaboration with Pierson was especially fruitful, as the photographer apparently catered to her every demand: ‘In a reversal of the roles, the sitter would direct every aspect of the picture, from the angle of the shot to the lighting, using the photographer as a mere tool in her pursuit of self-absorbed, exhibitionist fantasies' (The Waking Dream, p. 339). Subsequent scholarship and notoriety on the Countess directly generated from Apraxine’s initial research. The Metropolitan Museum of Art houses the largest collection of images of the Countess. Taken as a whole, the Countess’s images show a woman with a nuanced understanding of photography’s ability to manufacture and perpetuate fame.


    Also known as Nostaglie, this diptych comprises two iterations of the same scene. Enthralled by nightlife, the Countess sought inspiration from the lively brasseries she frequented. However, rather than seen socializing or exuberant, she is depicted alone and dejected at a small table, bookended by bottles. The left image is made from the original negative. The picture at right is in fact a photo montage, created by precisely cutting out the image on the left and re-photographing it against a white background. According to Pierre Apraxine’s research notes, the only other existing early print of the photomontage resides within the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s permanent collection, where it is part of an album page.


    Lots 31 through 41 in this auction come from the collection of celebrated curator Pierre Apraxine (1934-2023). Gifted with an eye peculiarly attuned to photography, Pierre expanded the historical canon of the medium and embodied an enthusiastic appreciation for those masterpieces created by unsung or anonymous photographers. He was one of the principal architects of the photography world that exists today, and his impact extends from museums to the market. Over the course of his long career, Pierre also built a small and select personal collection that included Design objects and Photographs. It is Phillips’ distinct pleasure to present offerings from his collection.


    From 1976 to 2007 Pierre was the art curator for the Gilman Paper Company headed by the late Howard Gilman. There he assembled several collections of contemporary painting and sculpture, but he will best be remembered for his creation of the Company’s photography collection. Pierre built the Gilman photography collection in consultation with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, filling gaps and building upon strengths in the Museum’s holdings. Today, the collection that Pierre built is one of the pillars of the Museum’s photography holdings. The material was first shown at the Metropolitan in 1993 the landmark exhibition, The Waking Dream: Photography's First Century, and Pierre was a principal author of the accompanying lavish exhibition catalogue.


    Born in Estonia and educated in Belgium, Pierre Apraxine came to America in 1970 as a Fulbright Scholar to work at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Besides The Waking Dream, Pierre curated several exhibitions for the Metropolitan, among them La Divine Comtesse: Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione in 2000, and A Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult in 2005. He is also the author, with the master-printer Richard Benson, of Photographs from the Collection of the Gilman Paper Company (1985), and Leon Tolstoi: Photographies de Sophie Tolstoi (1993). In 2001 he was curator in charge of the installation of Gustave Le Gray at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Paris, the first retrospective exhibition in France of this major figure of early photography. In 2005 he was made Chevalier dans l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Republic.


    In person, Pierre was unfailingly courteous and reliably generous in sharing his vast knowledge, his gentle humor, and his warmth of spirit.

    • Provenance

      Collection of Julien Levy, Paris
      Tajan, Paris, Photographies - Bibliothèque Julien Levy, 14 November 2006, lot 33

    • Literature

      Apraxine and Demange, "La Divine Comtesse" Photographs of the Countess de Castiglione, p. 126 cat. 36 (photomontage, variant)
      Female Trouble: die Kamera als Spiegel und Bühne weiblicher Inszenierungen, p. 45 (photomontage, variant and shown on an album page with other images)

Photographs from the Collection of Pierre Apraxine


Diptych: Studies of the Comtesse Castiglione

Two gelatin silver prints, printed 1930s.
Each 3 1/2 x 3 1/2 in. (8.9 x 8.9 cm)
Each annotated '226' in an unidentified hand in pencil on the verso.

Full Cataloguing

$2,000 - 3,000 

Sold for $8,636

Contact Specialist

Sarah Krueger
Head of Department, Photographs

Vanessa Hallett
Worldwide Head of Photographs and Chairwoman, Americas


New York Auction 4 April 2023