Cléo de Mérode, an icon between Romanticism and Symbolism

Cléo de Mérode, an icon between Romanticism and Symbolism

  • Cléo de Mérode.

    OGERAU Charles (1868 - 1908)

  • Cléo de Mérode.

    NADAR (Gaspard Félix TOURNACHON, known as) (1820 - 1910)

  • Cléo de Mérode.

    FALGUIERE Alexandre (1831 - 1900)

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Title: Cléo de Mérode.

Author : OGERAU Charles (1868 - 1908)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 14.5 - Width 10.5

Technique and other indications: Albumen print mounted on cardboard. Around 1893.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Picture reference: 88-002725 / Pho1988-28

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

To close

Title: Cléo de Mérode.

Author : NADAR (Gaspard Félix TOURNACHON, known as) (1820 - 1910)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 14.6 - Width 10.6

Technique and other indications: Albumen print. Around 1893.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

Picture reference: 03-000502 / PHO1988-28-10

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - H. Lewandowski

To close

Title: Cléo de Mérode.

Author : FALGUIERE Alexandre (1831 - 1900)

Date shown:

Dimensions: Height 165 - Width 77

Technique and other indications: Plaster cast. Around 1896.

Storage location: Orsay Museum website

Contact copyright: © Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Picture reference: 85-002823 / RF2674

© Photo RMN-Grand Palais - All rights reserved

Publication date: March 2016

Agrégée in Italian, Doctorate in Contemporary History at the University of Versailles Saint-Quentin-en-Yvelines

Historical context

An angelic beauty icon

During the Belle Époque, under the influence of decadentism and symbolism, hedonism and spirituality came together: literature, performing arts and figurative arts took up the romantic theme of women as an idol of beauty, sometimes angelic, sometimes diabolical. He then borders on obsession, and examples of femme fatales multiply: one of the favorite characters is that of Salomé, to whom Oscar Wilde dedicates the eponymous drama illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. To this sulphurous image correspond "the three Graces of the Belle Époque", the artists and demi-mondaines Liane de Pougy, Émilienne d'Alençon and the beautiful Otero, while the angelic ideal is embodied by Cléo de Mérode, icon of a beauty without make-up or shadows, which she maintains and defends at all costs.

Coming from an Austrian branch of the Belgian house of Mérode, Cleopatra Diane, known as Cléo, was born in Paris in 1875 to Vincentia de Mérode who, seduced by a man of high Viennese society, went into exile in France. Much more than a means of social revenge, Cléo is her mother's sole reason for living; aged seven, Cléo entered the Opera dance school (see From class to stage, the Paris Opera ballet seen by Edgar Degas), where her name distinguished her from the mass of children. rats and allows him to dance in social salons; during her career at the Opera, she stood out more as a model of the photographs taken on the fringes of performances than as a performer on the stage.

The development of photographic technique contributes to making Cléo de Mérode an international celebrity: her portrait is reproduced in the form of postcards, printed and distributed in thousands of copies. Naturally beautiful and very photogenic, Cléo has freckles that are systematically eliminated in photos intended for reproduction, in order to keep an image as less earthy as possible.

Elected, among 131 celebrities, beauty queen in photographs by readers of The Illustration in 1896, Cléo de Mérode quickly became an icon of the Symbolists, while keeping a romantic aura that brought her closer to Maria Taglioni (see Marie Taglioni and the apogee of the romantic ballet), especially from the 1900s, when Cléo definitely opted for the headband hairstyle. Cléo poses for Degas (see Degas and the Celebration of Female Dance at the Opera), but she is unfortunately not recognizable in any of her works; on the other hand, those returned to him by the painters Boldini and Toulouse-Lautrec, the sculptors Alexandre Falguière and Luis de Perinat, and the photographers Goplo, Paul Nadar, Léopold Reutlinger, Charles-Pierre Ogereau and Henri Manuel, celebrate Cléo de Mérode as an icon of chaste sensuality.

So much beauty and modesty, united to his dual status of aristocrat and artist, arouse the curiosity and slander of contemporaries, who suspect the dancer of hypocrisy and are delighted to discover, at the Salon des artistes français de 1896, a sculpture by Alexandre Falguière representing her naked. The scope of the Falguière affair is comparable to that of the scandal that erupted in 1893, because of an improvised musical stripping during the Quat'z'Arts ball: in both cases, the society of the Belle Époque is reveals in all its ambiguity.

Immersed in social life, Cléo nevertheless preserves her private life and her loves, much less numerous than those that the rumors attribute to her. Vestal in her own image, throughout her life Cléo de Mérode strives to maintain a perpetual youth; when she died in 1966 at the age of ninety-one, she was now the icon of a mythical era.

Image Analysis

An ideal model for photographers and sculptors

In Ogereau's photo, Cléo de Mérode appears seated in an imposing armchair with her right hand holding an armrest. Framed by her hair wisely combed in bands, the young woman's face emerges from a frill of lace and a stole of ostrich feathers. Dressed in an elegant dress with the sleeves baring only her hands, she stares at the lens with a gentle but confident gaze. The pose is nonchalant despite the corset which cruelly hugs her waist.

Paul Nadar, son and heir of the famous photographer, is highly regarded for his portraits. Cléo de Mérode appears here in stage costume, but it is on her face that this shot catches the eye: under the flood of the long and abundant blond hair, the features are regular, the gaze as wise as it is dreamy. The tiara gives an exotic touch but without eroticism.

Raised by her mother in the cult of personality as much as in respect for good morals and her noble origins, Cléo de Mérode has never consented to be portrayed naked: it is therefore for her the dismay when she discovers the sculpture by Falguière. Thanks to the three-dimensionality of the work, the opulent forms and the languid pose of the model offer themselves without modesty to the voyeuristic desire of the admirers of the dancer. In a letter to Figaro, the Belgian symbolist writer Georges Rodenbach accuses Falguière of having "depoetized" the image of the dancer in general and that of Cléo in particular, since, by representing her naked, "it seems that we all have her! ". Despite its good intentions, Rodenbach's letter did Cléo a disservice, on the contrary arousing mockery in the satirical press.

Interpretation

The art of becoming a living masterpiece

Cléo de Mérode does not mark the history of ballet: decorative dancer rather than performer, she is not an artist strictly speaking, but, like the dandy celebrated by Oscar Wilde, she succeeds in becoming herself a work of art, charming Marcel Proust and Reynaldo Hahn. "Pre-Raphaelite" in her youth, "classic" in her maturity, Cléo becomes the embodiment of an ideal of timeless feminine beauty that arouses a desire less carnal than aesthetic. Peter Altenberg, a decadent Viennese writer friend of Gustav Klimt, writes: “Cléo de Mérode, you are a paradigm of aesthetic force, which takes on an individual appearance in order to deliver the exceptional genre of your artistic expression to the world. [...] The public display of a particular perfection can exceptionally contribute to the evolution of mankind! […] It’s as if you are leading modern women to the ideal image of their desires, and in that sense you are a great artist! "

  • dance
  • women
  • romanticism
  • symbolism
  • beauty
  • icon
  • Klimt (Gustav)
  • Degas (Edgar)
  • actor
  • Nadar (Tournachon Gaspard-Félix, aka)
  • opera
  • photography
  • ideal
  • Proust (Marcel)
  • Toulouse-Lautrec (Henri de)
  • Wilde (Oscar)

Bibliography

• Christian CORVISIER, Cléo de Mérode and photography: the first modern icon, Paris, Éditions du patrimoine-Center des monuments nationaux, 2007. • Cléo de MÉRODE, The Ballet of my life, preface by Françoise Ducout, Paris, Pierre Horay Éditeur, 1985.

To cite this article

Gabriella ASARO, "Cléo de Mérode, an icon between Romanticism and Symbolism"


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