Cléo de Mérode: the Dancer and Celebrity Glamour Model of the Belle Époque

At the age of eight, Cléo de Mérode (1875 – 1966) was already showing the talent that would make her a world renowned dancer of the Belle Époque.

Born in Paris to a Viennese baroness, she entered the Paris Opera ballet school at seven and made her professional debut at age eleven.

But it would be her beauty that stirred the public’s imagination, for Cléo de Mérode was, perhaps, the first real celebrity icon.

Before long, her dancing skills took second stage to her glamour, as postcards and playing cards around the world started featuring her image.

Cléo de Mérode, by Paul Nadar, 1894
Cléo de Mérode, by Paul Nadar, 1894

She was the talk of the town. Her new hairstyle was eagerly awaited and quickly imitated. Famous artists of the Belle Époque, like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Giovanni Boldini, and Félix Nadar queued to sculpt, paint, and photograph her.

Cléo de Merode, by Charles Ogerau, 1895
Cléo de Merode, by Charles Ogerau, 1895

Cléo de Mérode, 1897

Cleo De Merode at the Salon by Carlos Vazquez Ubeda (1869 - 1944)
Cleo De Merode at the Salon by Carlos Vazquez Ubeda (1869 – 1944)

Even royalty courted her. In 1896, King Léopold II, having watched her dance at the ballet, became infatuated with her, and rumor soon spread that she was his mistress. The king had fathered two children with a prostitute and her reputation suffered as a consequence.

Cléo de Mérode
Cléo de Mérode

But this was the Belle Époque, a time of unprecedented colonial expansion, the very dawn of modern celebrity culture. Such indiscretions were soon forgotten and Cléo de Mérode became an international star, giving performances across Europe and the United States.

Cléo de Mérode by Giovanni Boldini, 1901
Cléo de Mérode by Giovanni Boldini, 1901
Cleo de Merode, 1903
Cleo de Merode, 1903

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Her decision to dance at the risqué Folies Bergère cabaret only served to heighten her following. And when she met artist Gustav Klimt, whose specialty was female sexuality, a romance blossomed that inspired the 2006 movie Klimt.

Cléo de Merode by Reutlinger
Cléo de Merode by Reutlinger
Cléo de Merode, by Charles Ogerau, 1902
Cléo de Merode, by Charles Ogerau, 1902
Cleo de Merode, 1905
Cleo de Merode, 1905
Cléo de Mérode, 1905
Cléo de Mérode, 1905
Cléo de Mérode, 1910
Cléo de Mérode, 1910

Continuing to dance into her early fifties, Mérode eventually retired to the seaside resort of Biarritz in the French Pyrénées. In 1955, she published her autobiography, Le Ballet de ma vie (The Dance of My Life).

Biarritz, 1930s
Biarritz, 1930s

At the ripe old age of 91, the greatest celebrity of the Belle Époque was no more. Cléo de Mérode was interred in the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. Her spirit still watches over her mother, interred in the same tomb.

Tomb of Cléo de Mérode, the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Credit Lebiblio
Tomb of Cléo de Mérode, the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Credit Lebiblio

Gone forever, but not forgotten.

Cléo de Mérode by Mariano Benlliure, 1910
Cléo de Mérode by Mariano Benlliure, 1910

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David James

David James

I'm an Englishman in Boston. History is a joy—it binds us, it connects us, it guides us. I'm interested in making history more accessible and more fun. Join me on this fantastic voyage through time.