The Politics of a Carte-de-Visite

By focusing on a 19th-century photograph from Wheaton’s Permanent Collection, Phoebe Wu (Class of 2020) explores how one Polish émigrée used the medium to garner support for her family’s cause.

This essay was written for Professor McBreen’s class Photography as Knowledge (Spring 2019).

In nineteenth-century Europe, the carte-de-viste was widely used by the aristocracy for the purpose of self-fashioning, primarily because it was capable of reaching a broad audience. The documentary power commonly attributed to photography established it as a truth-telling medium, rather than the highly constructed image it was. The carte-de-visite in particular gave photography a collectible, inexpensive format for shaping the sitter’s public identity. Especially for aristocrats, the carte-de-visite not only allowed them to be presented in a more accessible manner, but was also a persuasive way to share messages about their political goals. The 1859 carte-de-visite depicting Princess Marie Czartoryska from the Wheaton Permanent Collection is a revealing example of royalty using the format for a diplomatic purpose, both as a reminder of the traditional contributions of Czartoryski family in Polish politics, and to help garner wider political support abroad for her family’s cause [Fig. 1].

The carte-de-viste (often abbreviated CdV) was patented in 1854 by French photographer André Adolphe- Eugene Disdéri. The process allowed eight negatives to be produced on a single plate, giving sitters the ability to pose for multiple images in one sitting, and then choose which image(s) would then be mounted on a small visiting card. The uncut sheet from the Wheaton Collection reveals all eight original poses, prior to selection or mounting.

The relative ease and low cost of production made the carte-de-visite highly collectible. Albums for the collection and display of cards became extremely popular and showcased celebrities and prominent people. John Plunkett has pointed out that to collect images of the powerful elite seemed to be democratic, since those images now belonged to more people (1). It helped strengthen the connection between the ruling class and its people, making public recognition possible for the first time. The carte-de-viste was also a powerful tool for rulers since it established a more intimate interaction between ordinary people and those in power, with the potential to engage the majority with their political concerns. Through collecting, people could now imagine a connection to formerly distant figureheads. For the purpose of this paper, however, we will focus on one noble family’s use of the carte-de-visite.

The photograph depicting the Polish princess Marie Czartoryska, I would argue, had a specific political purpose. Born in 1833, she married Witold Czartoryski, the eldest son of Adam Czartoryski, at the age of eighteen. Czartoryski was a princely family of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth with a history dating back to the fourteenth century. Unlike her husband, who was known to be a wastrel, Marie actively participated in the diplomatic mission of the family. By the time of the photograph, Marie had fully adapted to the political roles and ambitions of her powerful family.

Figure 1. André Adolphe-Eugène Disdéri, “Princess Marie Czartoryska (née Grocholskich)”, 1859. Albumen print. Wheaton College (Norton, MA) Permanent Collection. Purchased with the Kenneth C. and Louise McKeon Deemer ‘33 Fund. 2013.003.007.

In these images, she wears two different sets of clothes, and her poses are carefully chosen to construct specific image of herself. In the four photos on the top she wears a traditional Polish costume, while for the bottom four photos she is in a theatrical dancing dress. The theatrical impression is enhanced by her pose in the second and third picture at bottom. In both of them, she is standing on her tiptoes. In the second photo, she touches her cheek gently with one hand, while opening up the other hand to the height parallel to the chest as if she is a dancer getting ready for the stage, or applying makeup. In the third picture, she lifts her left arm above her head, and puts her right arm behind her back, which instantly reminds people of the pose of the curtain call that performers would do at the end of a show. In all of the four photos, she is either politely looking away, or gazing at the camera softly with a humble, almost shy smile, reflecting the widely appreciated images of female rooted in art for centuries—the idea of being submissive to others’ gaze and beautiful property for public display. All of those features together transform her from an elegant, distant princess, as she is captured in another period portrait [Fig. 2] to a more accessible young dancer.

Figure 2. “Maria z Grocholskich ks. Witodowa Czartoryska (1833- 1928) – córka Henryka”.  http://grocholski.pl/pl/portrety/

Marie’s approach to tie her identity to art was not an innovative attempt, and it closely followed the tradition of her family. Izabela Czartoryska, her husband’s great-grandmother, was a famous writer and art collector who made contributions to the 18th-century Enlightenment in Poland, a phenomenon heavily supported by the nobility. Princess Izabela was devoted to the salvation of her country (2). After raising her children, she devoted herself to collecting and preserving historical relics relating to the history of Poland. She founded the first museum of Poland at Pulawy, “Temple of Sibyl” (now known as the Czartoryski Museum), which displayed art objects and royal treasures, It was named after Sibyl, because she “regarded herself as a second Sibyl, a guardian of the books of destiny of her people” (3). Thus, Izabela Czartoryska’s identity and her achievement were indelibly connected to art and literature.

Marie was not the only Czartoryski to continue this family tradition. In a letter written to the famous writer George Sand in 1840, she asked Marie Dorval, a successful French actress of her time, if Dorval would “help Princess Czartoryska organize a musical and theatrical benefit for the Polish cause” (4). “The “Princess Czartoryska” here was not referring to Marie, since she did not marry her husband until 1851. Rather, it was most likely Izabella Elżbieta Czartoryska, the younger sister of Marie’s husband. It was a family strategy to actively use art patronage as a tool for political ends. The photographs of Marie were meant to recall this tradition, most notably carried on by the female members of the family.

In the top row of the photograph, Marie wears a kerchief that wraps around all of her hair, a light blouse with patterns, and a long dress made with textured fabric in red or black, with small grids shaped by darker lines. Strings of beads are hung around her neck [Fig. 1]. According to Costume Throughout the Ages, this is a traditional Polish peasant costume, normally including: “short bouffant skirts of heavy wool, with stripes that are most conspicuous… a white blouse with sleeves of moderate size, close or loose-fitting at the wrist, has blocks of embroidery near the shoulder with narrow bands of the same at neck and bottom of the sleeve. Endlessly swathed in the folds of a brilliant kerchief that effectually conceals all hair” (5). We can also see similarities between Princess Marie’s costume and clothing worn by Polish peasants in a 1930 photograph [Fig. 3].

Figure 3, Ewing Galloway, “A Family From Lowicz. Poland.” Mary Evans, “Costume Throughout the Ages,” Lippincott’s Home Economics Books (Philadelphia). 1930.

Her choice of a Polish peasant costume was strategic, tailored to the specific diplomatic work and history of her family. Poland was then in a very difficult time. It fell into the hands of three different invaders: Prussia, Russia, and Austria. The leading member of the Czartoryski family was Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, Marie’s father-in-law. He participated in the anti-Russian 1792 campaign, which led to the second partition of Poland. Although he was not an active part of the revolt in 1794, which resulted in the third partition of Poland, the family estates were confiscated. In order to retrieve his property, Adam joined the Russian government under the Grand Duke Alexander I. Later when Alexander I became tsar, Adam served as one of his closest advisers. He was appointed Foreign Minister to the czar, and then made president of the National Government of Poland. Although he believed a successful revolt against Russia should largely depend on the intervention of Western Europe, instead of the sole efforts of the Poles, he engaged in the November Uprising in 1830. Therefore, he was forced to flee from Warsaw to Paris, after the insurrection of the Polish army was suppressed by Russia in 1831 (6).

The emigrants from Poland had a history of coming to France since Kościuszko’s revolt in 1794. By the autumn of 1831, there were as many as 5,000 Poles in France. Impatient to take back their homes, those Polish emigrants were planning the future while they were also actively absorbing the revolutionary ideas of France, Britain, and Germany (7). Looking back at the failed revolt of 1831, the unpreparedness of the military was one primary cause. Another critical one was that conservative elites lost the support of peasants after refusing to reform their rights of land and property.

The indifference of the elite made it difficult for a cohesive idea of one nation to grow in Poland. As Milewicz explains: “In the West, the notion of the emergence of nations through economic and political modernization was most persuasive. Therefore, concepts of nation were interpreted as irrelevant to the supposedly isolated village populations that constituted the largest share of societies before this modernization. Kedourie argued that peasants fought for faith and to defend their homes rather than for a fatherland. According to Hobsbawm, villagers felt no affiliation with the elite, ‘the chief targets of their discontent.’ As late as the First World War, they were interested in social rather than national concerns” (8).

Peasants’ lack of patriotism was reasonable, and definitely a huge challenge to the restoration of Poland. If peasants lacked a clear national identity, then it wouldn’t matter to them whether their ruler was Russian or Polish. In fact, they often did not even discriminate between Polish and foreign armies during wars (9). Learning from past lessons, in hoping to regain their lost support, the Czartoryskis decided to target two major groups of people particularly: left-wing revolutionaries (known as the Reds) and peasants.

Adam Czartoryski and the conservative group he associated with were characterized as the Whites. He wanted to cooperate with Austria first to fight against Russia (10). His desire to reconstruct Poland was genuine. However, the discord between the elite class he was representing and the common people has become more and more intense, especially after the government tried to take over the ownership of land from the peasants. Even among emigrés, Czartoryski’s policies were considered to “being out of tune with times” for Polish left-wing members. The young generation of Polish nobility and urban bourgeois began turning their look away from the government, counting on the power of the people instead (11).

Marxism profoundly influenced Polish history. In the year 1848, the Communist Manifesto was first published in Germany. It demonstrated that under the development of industrialization, not only were new oppression and struggles were developed in replace of the old ones, but the society itself was further separated into two extreme ends. Those who were exploited would be forced into a riot, for the society did not recognize their interests (12). What Marx also suggested was that peasants would only recognize the nation and themselves as a whole when the oppressive feudal or bourgeois systems has been put to an end. Those ideas of Marx evoked empathy among Polish left-wingers when thinking about their current society, and they had also been deeply inspired by revolutionary ideas from Western Europe for many years.

The Polish Democratic Society published the Manifesto of the Polish Democratic Society in 1836, claiming: “The suffering people with us resemble not the suffering people of western Europe; ours have not been contaminated by the corruption and selfishness of the privileged classes; they possess still all the simplicity of their ancient virtues, integrity, devotedness, religious feelings, manners benign and pure. Upon a soil so fresh and untainted, and tilled by the honest arm of fraternity and liberty, the old national tree of equality will easily shoot up and flourish anew” (13). They criticized the privileges enjoyed by the nobility and proposed peasants should sustain their ownership of lands and security of property. They believed the rebirth of Poland relied on the peasants (14). Apparently, it was very reasonable for those peasants, who never had a voice before, being only willing to fight for a country that cared about them. As the movement of extreme left was developed toward some form of populism (which did not seek equality, but exclusively concerned people), it has become so threatening that “even the Czartoryski group felt it necessary to pay lip-service to doctrines of social justice” (15).

In an effort to send out the signal that nobility and the peasantry were in fact a unified body, Marie strategically aligned herself with peasantry in this carte-de-visite. But why now in 1859? The most obvious answer should be, of course, carte-de-viste format was not invented until 1850s. But to dive more deeply into this question, my hypothesis is that signs of a declining of Russia in the 1850s provided the Czartoriski an opportunity. After decades of waiting, they now saw the hope for Poles to push Russia out completely. According to Leslie, the Russian population grew from 35.5 million to 68.5 million between 1800 and 1850, but industrial production fell far behind other western European countries. From 1851 to 1857, the kilometers of railway line only increased from 1,004 to 1,170 (16). Especially when Russia was defeated in the Crimean War in 1856, the Czartoryski may have finally seen the confidence in themselves to expel Russia from their land, and take back their nation.

An important event in 1859 was the Second Italian War of Independence, in which the French Empire and the Kingdom of Sardinia fought against Austria. Victory paved the way to the final Italian unification. The Poles might also see themselves in this war against invaders, and hope for the same result. There is more evidence to my hypothesis for this critical moment. Four years after the photo was taken, Polish people brought up the January Uprising against Russia’s kingdom of Poland. The insurrection was aimed to restore the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and involved all classes of the society. Polish peasants, who received promises from the government to obtain their land, turned out to be a great force in the war, as they were expected to be (17). Besides, the Czartoryski family played a significant active role in the war as well. Wladyslaw Czartoryski, the youngest son of Adam Czartoryski and Marie’s brother-in-law, was responsible for the diplomatic corps centered in France. The fact that the major civil and military union — the Secret Polish State — was established by both the Reds and the Whites, also proved the Czartoryskis’ goal to cooperate with both peasants and the left-wingers was successful.

Thus, Princess Marie’s choice to wear the traditional costume of Polish peasants was made both to win the heart and support of peasants and to show a gesture of their determination to collaborate. More importantly, it was chosen at a critical historical moment that made the unity of Polish forces more urgent than ever. Marie Czartoryska made this choice to construct a people-friendly image, and to highlight the contribution of her family to Polish identity and political power.


(1) Plunkett, John. “Celebrity and Community: The Poetics of the Carte-de-Viste” Journal of Victorian Culture 8:1 (2003): 55-79.

(2) Kukiel, Marian. Czartoryski and European Unity, 1770-1861 (Kosciuszko Foundation. Poland’s Millennium Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955), 11.

(3) Kukiel, 11-12.

(4) Sand, George, Marie Dorval, and Mary Flagler Cary Music Collection (Pierpont Morgan Library).: [n.p., Paris?], to Marie [dorval]. 1840.

(5) Evans, Mary. Costume Throughout the Ages (Lippincott’s Home Economics Books. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1930), 234-236.

(6) Leslie, R. F. Reform and Insurrection in Russian Poland, 1856-1865 (University of London Historical Studies, 13. London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1963), 1-4.

(7) Leslie, 2.

(8) Milewicz, National Identification in Pre-Industrial Communities: Peasant Participation in the November Uprising in the Kingdom of Poland, 1830–1831, Jahrbücher Für Geschichte Osteuropas, Neue Folge, 58, no. 3 (2010),321.

(9) Milewicz, 322.

(10) Leslie, 3.

(11) Leslie, 4.

(12) Marx, Karl, and Frederick Engels. Marx/Engels Selected Works, Vol. One: Manifesto of the Communist Party (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1969), 98-137.

(13) Kukiel, Marian. Czartoryski and European Unity, 1770-1861 (Kosciuszko Foundation. Poland’s Millennium Series. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1955).

(14) Leslie, 7-8.

(15) Leslie, 8.

(16) Leslie, 1.

(17) Leslie, 163-169.

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