This important and defining oil on canvas portrait features a stylized Mata Hari in the midst of one of her sensual, almost trance-like dances.
The highly moody piece is a wonderful example of the 1900-1915 Spanish modernismo movement by Anselmo Miguel Nieto, one of its brightest talents.
This classically inspired yet fully modern painting applies formal chiaroscuro technique (the exaggerated use of light and dark to create a dramatic perspective) to one of the great courtesans of early 20th century Europe to create a sexually and politically subversive yet beautiful work.
In his day, Nieto was an active part of the modernismo movement, which developed in Catalan and revolutionized literature and art throughout the Spanish speaking world.
Nieto was friends with the young Pablo Picasso and a portrait of Nieto by Picasso has recently surfaced. The participants in the modernismo movement were a passionate group who frequented the cafes and dance halls and were particularly fond supporters of popular and beautiful avant-garde dancers such as Pastora Imperio, Tortola Valencia, and Mata Hari, writing poems of praise for their art and frequently painting them.
Margarete Gertrud Zelle, known to posterity by her alias, Mata Hari, is one of the most infamous spies of the 20th century.
At 17, Zelle married John MacLeod, a Dutch East Indies officer 21 years her senior, and moved with him to Java.
Sometime later, Zelle was reincarnated in Paris as Mata Hari, a high-class exotic dancer purportedly of Hindu birth. She dressed in ornately jeweled tunics and signature midriff-bearing bustiers. She gathered a loyal group of patrons from all over Europe and took many wealthy and socially elite lovers. Before long, Mata Hari had amassed a small fortune in exchange for her nude performances.
At the start of World War I, Mata Hari joined the German Secret Service, after having been recruited by one of her lovers, Berlin’s Chief of Police. She continued giving risqué dance performances on stages in London, Paris, Antwerp, and Brussels as the war raged on, all the while secretly transmitting intelligence reports to Germany that she culled from various diplomat customers.
On a tip from Italian intelligence, French authorities learned of Mata Hari’s espionage activities and began watching her movements carefully. To test her alleged allegiance to the Allies, French authorities agreed to send her on a secret mission to occupied Brussels. Even as Mata Hari began participating in low-grade espionage activities for the Allies, however, she continued to take orders from Germany.
She demanded large sums of money for her services from both the Germans and the French as she zig-zagged the continent. In Paris, she was arrested with her check from the Germans in hand. At the end of her two-day trial she was sentenced to death for espionage and treason. Mata Hari was executed by firing squad on October 15, 1917, all of the many motions for clemency submitted by various lovers having been denied.
Her story lives on in legend, most poignantly depicted by Greta Garbo in the 1931 film Mata Hari.