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Cléo de Mérode
Cleo de merode20.jpg
Cléo de Mérode by Nadar, 1895
Cléopâtre-Diane de Mérode

27 September 1875
Died 17 October 1966 (aged 91)
Resting place Père Lachaise Cemetery
Occupation Dancer
Years active 1886–1924, 1934
Cléo de Mérode Signature.png

Cléopâtre-Diane de Mérode (27 September 1875 – 17 October 1966) was a French dancer of the Belle Époque. She has been referred to as the "first real celebrity icon" and the "first modern celebrity". She was also the first woman whose photographic image, due in particular to photographers Nadar and Léopold-Émile Reutlinger, was distributed worldwide.


Cléo de Mérode as a child
Cléo de Mérode photographed as a child, c. 1880s

Cléo de Mérode was born in Paris, France, on 27 September 1875. She was the illegitimate daughter of Viennese Baroness Vincentia Maria Cäcilia Catharina de Mérode (1850–1899). Vincentia was estranged from Cléo's father, who was the Austrian judge, lawyer, and pioneer of tourism Theodor Christomannos; Cléo did not meet him until she was a young adult. She was raised Catholic, and affectionately called "Lulu" by her family. At the age of eight, she was sent to study dance with the Sisters of Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, and she made her professional debut at the Paris Opéra at age eleven.

Cléo de Mérode, dancer, portrait 1903 - SMV - GM041
de Mérode wearing her famous chignon hairstyle, 1903

de Mérode became renowned for her glamour even more than for her dancing skills, and her image began appearing on such things as postcards and playing cards. At 16, she debuted her signature hairstyle, a chignon, which became the talk of Parisian women and was quickly adopted as a popular style for all. At the same time, the hairstyle, which covered her ears, caused rumors to circulate that de Mérode was missing one of or both of her ears. In 1895, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec did her portrait, as would Charles Puyo, Alfredo Müller, Edgar Degas, Manuel Benedito, Georges Clairin, Friedrich August von Kaulbach (who painted her twice), József Rippl-Rónai, François Flameng, Carlos Vázquez Úbeda, Einar Nerman, Henri Gervex, and Giovanni Boldini. She was sculpted by the likes of Alexandre Falguière (who sculpted her twice), Mariano Benlliure, Alphonse Mucha, Ernst Seger, and Eugène-Denis Arrondelle. A sculpture of her done by an anonymous artist can be found at the Galerie Tourbillon, and a wax mask of her by Georges Despret is preserved at the Musée Fin-de-Siècle Museum in Brussels. Georges Goursat also drew several caricatures of de Mérode during the 1900s. Her picture was taken by some of the most illustrious photographers of the day, including Nadar and his son and successor Paul Nadar, Léopold-Émile Reutlinger and his son Jean Reutlinger, Charles Ogerau, Henri Manuel, and Otto Sarony.

In the fall of 1895, a rumor began that de Mérode was King Leopold II's latest mistress, and the two were dubbed "Cléopold" by the media.

In the spring of 1896, a second scandal erupted due to the exhibition of the sculpture La Danseuse by Alexandre Falguière at the Salon des Artistes Française. The sculpture was of life-size in white marble that was carved from a plaster cast of de Mérode's body. Despite the grain of skin visible on the plaster, proving a live cast, de Mérode accused Falguière of having fabricated a scandalous work by molding the body of the statue on another female model, whereas she posed only for the head. The scandal followed her throughout her career; almost a decade later, in 1904, The Sketch wrote, "Cléo de Mérode is, of course, well known because of her beauty and the Falguière statue, and not on account of her quality as dancer, which is not remarkable." Although de Mérode vehemently denied posing for the sculpture, she later incorporated the work into a stage production in which she starred. The sculpture can now be seen at the Musée d'Orsay.

In the summer of 1896, de Mérode appeared in a simulated scene in the title role of Phryné, a three act ballet-pantomime staged at the Casino Municipal in the seaside resort of Royan. That year she was also elected “Beauty Queen” by 3,000 out of 7,000 votes by readers of L'Illustration. She garnered almost 1,000 votes more than other celebrated names, including Sarah Bernhardt and Gabrielle Réjane.

Despite the two scandals, de Mérode became an international star, performing across Europe and in the United States. In 1897, she arrived in New York City, where she appeared for a month at Koster and Bial's. During her stay in New York, she was besieged by reporters and followed down the street by girls begging for her autograph. de Mérode's performance was heavily anticipated, but was disappointing, the press praising her beauty but saying that she could not dance; Munsey's Magazine said of her, "Cléo de Mérode can go back to her inconspicuous position among the ballet dancers at the Paris Opéra, crowned with the distinction of having made the most successful failure of the season. Critics and public joined in a chorus of disappointment after her first appearance at Koster & Bial's, and yet she has set a new fashion in personal adornment, crowds mark her progress on the street, and large audiences assemble to see her." de Mérode responded to the criticism by saying, "The papers stated that I was a failure, but they lied. I pleased the Americans vastly. The papers pretended that I danced badly, as if Americans could tell. They know nothing about dancing and don't like ballets." Despite the letdown, de Mérode made over forty times her regular monthly Parisian salary, which drew criticism, resulting in de Mérode being dismissed as an "article de Paris" – alluring, but worthless.

Au Bois De Boulogne Vanity Fair 1897-06-03
Cléo de Mérode, Liane de Pougy, and La Belle Otero, amongst others, appear in a fashionable crowd in the Bois de Boulogne drawn by Guth, 1897

In 1898, de Mérode was awarded first prize at a exhibit of the New York Camera Club as being the most beautiful woman in Paris. In 1900, she caused a sensation at the Exposition Universelle with her fake Cambodian dance. She also appeared in two films, one of which was hand-tinted in color; both showed her dancing. At the height of her popularity, she chose to dance at the Folies Bergère in a three-act pantomime titled Lorenza, taking the risk to do something other elites of the ballet had never done before. Her performance gained her a new following, and her popularity further increased. In 1902, de Mérode performed at the Alhambra in London, where her performance was not well received. In contrast, she was popular in Sweden, visiting there in 1903 and 1904. In 1904, she reprised her role as Phryne at the Olympia. In 1906, it was reported that 50,000,000 photographs of de Mérode had been sold and that a single Berlin firm produced 4,000,000 a year. The following year, Everybody's Magazine compared her to the Virgin Mary. Jean Cocteau wrote of her, "She is the beauty of beauty, the virgin who is not, the Pre-Raphaelite lady who walks with downcast eyes through groups [...] The profile of Cléo is so graceful, so divine that the cartoonists break it."

Cléo de Mérode at the Salon
Cléo de Mérode and the infamous Falguière sculpture depicted in a painting by Carlos Vázquez Úbeda

In 1912, de Mérode appeared in the opera La Danseuse de Pompeii as part of the corps de ballet at the Opéra-Comique. The following year in late June, she appeared in the revue Come Over Here at the London Opera House. During World War I, she entertained wounded soldiers. She continued to dance until her late forties; Rupert Doone's partnering of de Mérode in a 1924 social dance recital reportedly inspired Frederick Ashton to pursue a career in dance. Despite a successful comeback, de Mérode retired in 1924 to the seaside resort of Biarritz in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques département of France. She also spent time at the Château de Rastignac with the Lauwick family. At the request of theater director Henri Varna, she reappeared on stage at the Alcazar in June 1934 in La revue 1900 alongside the dancer George Skibine. de Mérode later reflected, “I was wearing a pink satin dress, boned at the waist, very long, with a ruching at the bottom. We danced five waltzes in a row; we ended with a big whirlwind, and Skibine carried me in his arms to the back of the stage.” She then taught ballet before retiring in 1965 at 90 years old. As a hobby, she crafted figurines of dancers, shepherds, and shepherdesses in the classical style which she then sold.

In 1923, de Mérode unsuccessfully sued the owners of the film Peacock Alley (1922) for 100,000 francs in damages, alleging that the film injured her reputation by burlesquing incidents in her career.

In 1955, she published her autobiography, Le Ballet de ma vie (The Dance of My Life).

In 1964, de Mérode was photographed by Cecil Beaton and featured in the 15 February 1964 issue of Vogue.

De Mérode never married or had children, which has led some biographers to categorize her as a lesbian. Paul Klee, who personally knew de Mérode, called her "probably the most beautiful woman alive" and said she "seemed asexual" in a 1902 diary entry. The French novelist Félicien Champsaur reportedly became obsessed with de Mérode and proposed marriage to her multiple times. In her autobiography La ballet de ma vie, de Mérode claimed that she had only been involved with two men in her life. She was engaged to a French aristocrat for nearly ten years before he died of Typhoid fever in 1904, and she was the companion of the Spanish sculptor and diplomat Luis de Périnat, Marquis de Périnat from 1906 to 1919. He left her for Spanish Baroness Ana Maria Elío y Gaztelu, with whom he had a son. de Mérode was close friends with the musician Reynaldo Hahn, who she met when she was seventeen. She lived with her mother until her mother's death in 1899.

She was a vegetarian.

Tombe de Cléo de Mérode (2)
de Mérode's grave at Père Lachaise

Suffering from dementia, de Mérode died on 17 October 1966 in her Paris apartment at 15 Rue de Téhéran, and was interred at Père Lachaise Cemetery in Division 90. A statue of her by Luis de Périnat, mourning her mother, who is interred in the same plot, decorates the gravestone.

See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Cléo de Mérode para niños

  • Women in dance
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