What makes someone beautiful? Or maybe the question is, what makes someone photogenic? Or the perfect subject for representation in any media? Symmetry? Expressive eyes? The ability to pose, to present yourself just so? In Cléo de Mérode’s case she seemed to possess all the necessary qualities – from an early age she inspired image-makers and sparked styles. She had a quality – what a very vague term – that spoke of modernity at the turn of the nineteenth century. Her dancer’s poise, long neck and tiny waist presented an apparently perfect silhouette – slim yet curved to express the contemporary line of beauty. For Boldini, she was coquettish, glancing over her shoulder, blouse slipping from milky shoulder … in Belle Époque photographs she is still usually in profile – she knew how best to display herself – Amazonian with puffed sleeved blouses, sculpted torso and perfect posture. Painted, sketched, photographed repeatedly, artists sought to capture her beauty and show how it expressed a transcendent modern ideal that still entices today.
Born in 1875 to an aristocratic, artistic family, she was dancing professionally from the age of 11. She soon existed both in reality – dancing at the Paris Opéra, for example, and brave enough to risk outrage by appearing with the risqué Folies Bergère – and in parallel – she lived as an image, a vision of a ideal that seduced and entrapped viewers. She was a cipher – a perfect neck, the smallest waist, the newest hairstyle – who seemed knowable through these depictions, and yet out of reach, a modern star to be consumed visually. She was famous internationally, desired by royalty – pursued by the Belgian king, and sculpted by Alexander Falguière, painted by Toulouse-Lautrec and photographed by Nadar.
Mérode’s ability to transcend time is evidenced in Cecil Beaton’s interview with her for Vogue in 1964 – 2 years before she died. By then she was elderly, but no less elegant, and still astute in her approach to photographer and camera. In his photograph of her, she remains uniquely herself – true to her image, posing to present her herself and reflect her beauty towards the light, and to potential viewers. For Beaton she represented a key period of style and living – a lost age, filled with enigmatic women in trailing gowns and elongated corsetry, their hair piled up for extra height. His book The Glass of Fashion is a paean to these indomitable proto-modern women, able to live with a greater degree of independence because of their class, talent or refusal to adhere to contemporary morality.
His interview with her, upstairs in her elegant Parisian apartment connects with themes that thread through his work – beauty, ageing and feeling out of synch with time. As he gains her confidence they walk through each room, seeking the best light for her to pose and reclaim her decades of modelling with gestures that resonate in hundreds of pictures. She denies the racier aspects of her reputation – no nights at Maxim’s she says, but she still knows how to perform, her body responds to artistic attention, and recreates the beauty of her youth. On his way out, Mérode became anxious – worried about the results of her sitting – and said ‘Remember, I am trés coquette. Now you’ve promised you’ll destroy all those pictures which are bad?’ As Beaton notes, she ‘knows how to protect her legend,’ perhaps the other key ingredient necessary to remain an eternal beauty.
Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion (1954)
Cecil Beaton, ‘Cléo de Mérode Today’, Vogue (Feb 15, 1964)