Cléo de Mérode

Very first modern icon

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Born in 1875, Cléo dies at her Paris home in 1966. Very first modern icon, she does not make herself known either thanks to her skills as a dancer or any other kinds of art. A pioneer, she finds the way to benefit from a brand new art, photography. Indeed, she grasps all its value and power. She manages to perceive herself as a subject and completely masters her own image. One never captures the photographer’s eye, so specific to this art (Reurlinger, Nadar, Boldini or Agereau). She is omnipresent through the paradox of being here and elsewhere, never lacking of character. Her art is her image. She finds consecration in her total control. Cléo de Mérode keeps on dancing, but her presence is more fascinating than her performances, rumours go round, the machine starts rolling and caricaturists have fun with it. Paradoxically, she leads a very discreet private life, she is said to have a relationship with king Leopold II, a rumour she never feeds… She makes an exception on her privacy when the famous scandal explodes, according to which she is meant to have posed naked, and not neck-upwards only, (which she keep denying against all odds) for the ageing sculptor Falguière. Just like Liane de Pougy, Cléo does not want to be considered as part of the semi-true socialites and other similar tarts of the time. She indeed is the legitimate daughter of an Austrian baroness, but set aside by her family as, at this turn of a century stuck on good manners and proper behaviour, being a single mother is definitely not politically correct. Through the staging of her image, Cléo de Mérode perhaps looks for some kind of recognition, a sense of legitimacy, which she misses terribly. She keeps working on it subtly, carrying proudly a singular hairdo known as "coiled hairstyle". She hires the services of the genius dressmaker Jacques Doucet who, with his magnificent dresses, aka “the untouchables”, contributes to creating the “Cleo-style” silhouette. Women copy her… sheer iconic power.

Her repute turns into an advertising concept and, quite early for the time, she becomes a support for various products that use her image. Thus were born the first “derived products” – sweet boxes, cigar rings, and postcards – in France, but in America also.

Her husband, an ambassador to France and amateur sculptor, Luis de Perinat, grants her with eternity: his work can be seen on her tombstone. She finally gets reunited with her mother at the Père Lachaise cemetery. In 1964, then 89, she is solicited by Cecil Beaton in view to realize a portrait for Vogue magazine. Cléo de Mérode makes no demands or whims; she has not become a sour old lady. She simply insists: “Do not forget I am very much of a coquette, promise me that all bad pictures will be destroyed. ”The portrait is nothing short of a masterpiece. The message is obvious and powerful: Cléo de Mérode never was a mere “sheer beauty”.

K.Rosenberg - translation V.Amathe

Cléo de Mérode
By Christian Corvisier
Editeur Monum - Editions Du Patrimoine


Pere Lachaise cimetery
Report Sabine Morandini


Cléo de Mérode and the photography

Very first modern icon

by Christian Corvisier

Editor : Monum - Editions Du Patrimoine