Spotlight: Cleo de Merode

Today's Spotlight Saturday features popular dancer Cleo de Merode.

Cleopatra Diane de Merode was born on September 27 1875 in Paris, France, to Austrian landscape artist Karl Freiherr de Merode and his wife, a former Viennese actress. The family was of aristocratic status, claiming descent from the Belgian noble family of de Merode.

Cleo, as she was known, went to study dance at the Paris Opera Ballet School aged 7, and made her professional debut at just 11 years old. When she entered the corps de ballet of the Paris Opera, she joined the ranks of women whose reputations were questioned as a matter of course; this was a time when the dancers were considered to be courtesans and the corps de ballet as little more than a harem. de Merode's youth excluded her from the majority of these assumptions, but that did not mean she went unnoticed. By the age of 13, she had already posed for Jean-Louis Forain and Edgar Degas.

Though she was a good dancer, she became more known for her beauty than her technique. She was frequently photographed, and her image was distributed everywhere. A true leader of fashion, any new hairstyle she chose to wear was greatly anticipated and then immediately imitated by the women of Paris. In fact, de Merode could be called the first real celebrity icon. In 1896, she was named 'reine de beaute' by L'Illustration (essentially 'beauty queen').

Making the most of her connections during the time of the Belle Epoque, she frequently sat for such artists as Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Charles Puyo, Alfredo Muller, and Giovanni Boldini. Alexandre Falguiere used her as a model for his sculpture The Dancer, which caused a sensation as the statue was nude; de Merode formally denied having posed in the nude for the artist and claimed she had not known his intentions when she modelled for the face of the sculpture. Famed photographers such as Felix Nadar all clamoured to take her picture. Her mother was increasingly overprotective of her, and lived with her until she died in 1899, when de Merode was almost 24.

Above: 'The Dancer', by Alexandre Falguiere; Below: Portrait by George Jules Victor Clairin

In 1896, King Leopold II of Belgium saw de Merode dance at the ballet and became enamoured with her. Since the king had two illegitimate children with a woman reputed to a prostitute, de Merode's reputation suffered as a result of gossip that she was the king's latest mistress. Despite later denying that she had ever been a courtesan in her autobiography, public opinion remained largely unswayed. In 1955, de Merode won a lawsuit she had brought against feminist Simone de Beauvoir, who had denounced de Merode in public as a prostitute who had taken on an aristocratic name as self-promotion. de Merode won her case by protesting that she was a professional dancer and proving her connection to the de Merode family. Furthermore, in the memoirs of a French political advisor who was present when de Merode and King Leopold actually met, the king apologised to the dancer for any injury the rumours might have caused her.

Despite such rumours, de Merode became an international star, dancing all across Europe and the United States. She even chose to dance at the risqué Folies Bergere, and despite the establishment's reputation, her performance only gained her more followers. She was often the subject of gossip and rumours, with one of the prevailing theories being that she was actually Hortense Gervais, the daughter of a humble family from Paris, which she always vigorously denied.

Portrait by Giovanni Boldini

Her character made an appearance in the 1926 German film Women of Passion, in which she was played by Fern Andra. Whilst in Vienna, she caught the attention of artist Gustave Klimt, though the nature of their relationship is a mystery. Their relationship became the basis of the 2006 film Klimt, in which she is represented by the character Lea de Castro.

de Merode continued to perform until her early fifties, finally retiring to the seaside resort of Biarritz in the Pyrenees-Atlantiques. In 1955, she published an autobiography entitled Le Ballet de ma vie (The Dance of My Life). She gave dance lessons until her eighties.

Statue on her grave

She died on October 17 1966 aged 91, and was buried with her mother in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. A statue of her in mourning decorates the grave, which was placed there when her mother died.

Thanks for reading!

- Selene

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