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The muses of the 20th century: Cléo de Mérode – Belle Époque's impeccable beauty

What brought Cléopatra Diane de Mérode most fame — the title of the most beautiful woman in France, the angelic appearance that mesmerized European monarchs, her femininity and charm on the stage, the impeccable taste of the elegant mademoiselle, who was born to a Belgian family of nobility, or false rumours and gossip, which tormented the dancer all her life? Today, we recognize the value of the works by Degas, Boldini, Steinlen, Toulouse-Lautrec and more…
Giovanni Boldini. Cleo de Merode
Cleo de Merode
1901, 97.8×81.3 cm
Painters and sculptors of the early 20th century idolized Cléopatra, and photographers even made the ballerina the first professional model. In the 1900s, Cléo de Mérode's photos could be found in every European city.
Thanks to the flourishing of new art, her romantic image of calm beauty is called the "postcard Madonna".

The noble dancer

Cléopatra was born in Paris in 1875. Her father Carl (also Karl) Freiherr von Mérode (1853−1909), by the way, was a famous landscape
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painter. Thanks to her mom, the girl entered the Paris Opera ballet school at the age of seven and started performing at the Grand Opera shortly after. Malicious gossip had it that Cléo owed her brilliant career not to the choreographic skills, but only to her wondrous beauty. We can’t confirm anything here — what is known is only that Cléo's career was fostered by her mother, a strong-willed woman.

At the age of 23, Cléo took up a solo career and performed on the stages of the Royal Theaters of France, had sold-out shows at the Folies Bergère and went on tours in Europe and America. The peak of her popularity was in the 1900s and 1910s, but even after she officially left the stage in 1924, the dancer occasionally performed at special invitations of entrepreneurs at the age of 50, which is a rare case for a ballerina.

In the photo — Cléo de Mérode

Giovanni Boldini, Portrait of Cléo de Mérode, pastel
At the 1900 Paris World Exposition, Cléo won the audience with her exotic Cambodian dance.
Cléo de Mérode performing a Cambodian dance at the 1900 Paris World Exposition
The beautiful Cléo attracted the most famous artists and sculptors of the 20th century. Although it is reliably known that Cléo posed for Edgar Degas, it’s not easy to find her slim figure among her friends in the paintings. A frequenter of ballet school rehearsals and concerts at the Opera, an artist who wasn’t buying a surface gloss of good manner or the effects that fascinate ballet fans, looked into the very heart of the dance…
Edgar Degas. Dancer resting
Dancer resting
1885, 75×73 cm
Jean-Louis Foren. Behind the scenes
Behind the scenes
1900-th , 105.5×141.5 cm
From the 18th century until the First World War, in French society, there was a very strong prejudice against women performing on stage.

Dancers, ballerinas, cabaret singers and circus performers who openly showed their bodies on stage were considered courtesans. 12−16-year-old girls attending the ballet school were called small mice (petites rats). Only the richest and most powerful gentlemen could go see those young vestals in the temple of debauchery — the "national harem" or "a sanctuary for Venus’s progeny," as the Opera’s foyer was called, which caused many rumours, caricatures and obscene jokes.

Jean-Louis Forain, The Admirer

The artist Jean-Louis Forain was interested only in the behind-the-scenes life of the Opera, portraying repulsive fans in black tail-coats, like Moles chasing fragile and defenceless Thumbelina.
Jean-Louis Foren. Foyer Of The Opera
Foyer Of The Opera
XIX century, 60.9×78.7 cm
Cléo had to go through experiencing such an unfair attitude of the public, and even defend her reputation in court several times. Toulouse-Lautrec's drawing is perhaps the only one depicting the dancer as an arrogant and inaccessible society woman, who seems to be indifferent to public opinion and gossip.

An overlord at the feet of a beautiful ballerina

Cléopatra's beauty drove crazy King Leopold II of Belgium. For the first time, he saw the ballerina on stage in Bordeaux and didn’t miss a single of her performances. The 61-year-old monarch, 38 years older than Cléo, fell in love with the beautiful woman like a boy.

Many attributed to them a torrid love affair, although the dancer herself claimed all her life that there was nothing between them — except an impressive bouquet of roses presented to her after one of the performances.

Despite all Cléo's attempts to protect her fair name, she was still known as the king’s mistress. The Parisians called the monarch Cléopold, and in the press, there appeared more and more new caricatures, competing in sharpness and not always propriety.

Caricature of Leopold II and Cléo de Mérode
"I was completely bewildered by the dimensions that this story took on. The tale of my liaison with Léopold sped along, across France, throughout Europe, and around the world. Caricatures, gossip columns, songs, skits, showed the king and me, snuggling, sharing a restaurant table, cracking open champagne at Maxim’s, on a cruise… I did not know what to make of such inordinate publicity; it stunned me," wrote Cléo de Mérode in her memoirs.
Caricature of Leopold II and Cléo de Mérode
Russian newspapers wrote not only about the monarch’s intentions to "marry for love," but also about the upcoming abdication of Leopold II from the throne. However, on the margins, there were talks about his frequent visits to Paris being just a cover for some secret political negotiations.

But of all the rumours, the most valuable for us is… the metro! They say that the king decided to make a valuable gift to France, and it was Cléo who suggested financing the construction of the metro. It was really built with the money of the Belgian monarch and opened in 1900.

The beauty of all beauties – a hostage of her own fairness

In 1896, the newspaper L’Eclat announced a beauty contest, the winner was chosen by the readers. Among 130 pretenders, having beaten even Sarah Bernhardt, Cléopatra was recognized as the first beauty of the Parisian scene.
At the Autumn Salon of that year, the name Cléo de Mérode was also on everyone’s lips. The sculptor Alexandre Falguière presented his work The Dancer, for which Cléo posed. The sculptor portrayed the ballerina naked. Cléo tried to persuade everyone that the sculpture had only her face, but it was all in vain — the public no longer wanted to believe in the dancer’s purity, recalling her affair with the Belgian king.
Alexandre Falguière, The Dancer, 1896, Paris, The Musée d’Orsay
In an open letter published in Figaro, the Belgian Symbolist Georges Rodenbach stood up for the beautiful Cléo. He reproached Falguière of "depriving her image of poetics," depicting her undressed, that made people feel like they "all possessed her!" Despite good intentions, the letter produced the opposite effect and caused satirical ridicule in the press.

Gossip and slander haunted this beautiful woman all her life. In 1952, the year of publishing Simone de Beauvoir’s book The Second Sex, in which Cléo was called a "demi-mondaine," the ballerina just had enough. She went to court to protect her honour and won the case. In 1955, the ballerina published her memoirs Le Ballet de ma vie (The Dance of My Life).

In fact, de Mérode sued Beauvoir for five million francs, but due to the fact that the ballerina did not prevent the spread of rumours "for advertising purposes," even after court ruled in favour of the actress, she received only 1 franc.
Manuel Benedito. Cleo de Merod
Cleo de Merod
1910, 160×108 cm
Cléopatra became the muse of many European sculptors. Her amazing beauty inspired artists to create numerous masterpieces.
Friedrich Goldscheider. Bust of Cléo de Mérode, 1890s, terracotta, private collection
Mariano Benlliure, Cléo de Mérode, 1910
Eugène Arrondelle, Cléo de Mérode
Georges Despret, Mask of Cléo de Mérode, 1909
Hiding from the train of scandalous glory, the ballerina left Paris and performed on the stages of Hamburg, Berlin, Budapest and New York. She also came to St. Petersburg, and in the Russian ballet it was the French dancer Cléo de Mérode who was the first female ballerina who danced on stage with a male partner.

The first photo-model

The development of photography made Cléo's image popular all over the world. The most famous studios for photographic portraits in Paris — those of Paul and Félix Nadar and Léopold-Émile Reutlinger — experimented with Cléo's image. She appeared on the postcards as a fashionable socialite, a charming dancer, and even in a prayer pose that suited her angelic appearance. Cléo eagerly posed for fashion magazines, which made her known as one of the first professional photo-models.
In her memoirs, the beauty recalled that when she was recognized on the streets during the tours, people immediately bought postcards with her image in newsstands and rushed to get her autograph. That unwanted attention often made Cléo stay in her hotel room.

The "impossible" outfits of the fashion icon

Among other things, Cléo was a sharp dresser. Nowadays, her stunning outfits can be seen at The Palais Galliera — a fashion museum in Paris.
Cléo de Mérode's dress, which she wore in 1900−1902, Gravelle, Paris Museum of Decorative Arts (photo:
Cléo de Mérode's coat, designed by Jacques Doucet, 1898−1900, Museum of Decorative Arts, Paris (photo:
In 2012, the museum published a three-volume catalogue about the 200 years of fashion. On the cover of one of the books, there is a fancy blouse of Cléo de Mérode, a muse who is also considered a style icon.

What’s more, Cléo came up with a new hairstyle. Have you noticed the way her hair is done in all the photographs, paintings and sculptures? Parted in the middle, covering her ears and put in a low bun. Not only all European women of fashion of the beginning of the 20th century, but also the characters of the works by Maugham and Fitzgerald styled their hair that way.

Photo by Nadar

The hairstyle was called "Cléo de Mérode." But it wasn’t long before the evil gossip appeared: the dancer had to cover her ears, because she… didn’t have half of one of them!

Cléo de Mérode died in 1966 at the age of 91. There is a statue of the dancer that decorates her gravestone in Paris. The author of the work is a marquis, a Spanish diplomat who worked at the Embassy in Paris and amateur sculptor Louis de Périnat. Louis was the only known lover of Cléo, who kept her personal life secret. They were dating back in 1906−1919. In 1909, Louis created a portrait of his beloved woman.

Photo of Cléo de Mérode

Cléo de Mérode's grave at Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris
The story of Cléo de Mérode continues to be told and her wondrous beauty is still admired. However, the dancer herself had only one passion — ballet.
The publication is based on materials from such sources:,