Heather Chessman - The Femme Fatale

The image of woman in art and literature as passive and demure in her setting of domestic tranquility took a sudden turn late in the nineteenth century. She became self-possessive and cold. She took pride in her powerful sexuality staring out at the viewer with great force. Her goal was the destruction of man. She meant to seduce and consume. Serving as a distraction, she stole an artist's attention and crushed his ability to create. What caused this change in the romantic portrayal of woman as victim to an evil force that sought to ruin men? The femme fatale became the dominant mode in which to portray women between the time of the Pre-Raphaelites through the Symbolists to the early twentieth century.

Women in the nineteenth century were believed incapable of understanding art or intellectual activities. They were mainly confined to the home and domestic activity. Patrick Babe stated, "The belief was widespread that women sapped creativity and that they were incapable of elevated feelings or of understanding art."(Bade 6) Then things began to change. Women in the late nineteenth century began to realize their limited role and began to question the dominance of men over women. Social change was coming for women and along with this change came man's fear of the power of women and the effect she had on the minds of men. This was directly reflected in European culture at the time. Artists began taking the image of the female heroine and interjecting sexuality and a cold indifference. Prostitution was also at issue. Sexual diseases such as syphilis were very common and of which many artists suffered. This new image of women was directly related to the fears stimulated by the new role in society women were assuming. In art Bade asserts, "was a revealing example of how familiar themes were transformed in late nineteenth century painting and how most unlikely material was used to express a neurotic anxiety about women." (Bade 17) The image of women no longer possessed the passive quality seen in earlier works of art. Cold, proud and sexual was the new heroine. She border-lined on evil. The femme fatale was often showed with long flowing hair often taking up the whole scene, which could serve as a seductive element or as a deadly trap that could snare her victim.



The Vampire by Munch

In Munch's The Vampire (1895), the fiery red hair of the women falls all around the man. It was her most powerful weapon. Her eyes were filled with mischief and she was ready to seduce. To show this predatory inclination of women artists often paired women with animals such as being entwined in a serpent or the woman's body was often part animal part human with her breasts and head exposed. An example would be Fernand Khnopff's painting entitled The Caress (1896) or Franz von Stuck's Sensuality (1891). She often took on a monster-like image. Peacock feathers were also used for their brilliant showy colors and often symbolized vanity. The images of biblical heroines such as Salome and Judith are also frequently shown in an erotic manner leaving all their pious traits behind.


The Caress by Khnopff


Salome by Beardsley

Judith by Klimt

Aubrey Beardsley's illustrations of Salome (1893) or Gustav Klimt's version of Judith (1901) are examples of this new trend to depict confident women, unashamed of the power of their sexuality. The femme fatale was depicted as a beautiful creature with an underlying motive to seduce and to destroy. Bade comments, "From Baudelaire to Marlene Dietrich is a time-span of more than 75 years. During this period the cult of the femme fatale spread throughout the civilized world affecting painting, sculpture, illustration, the decorative arts, the performing arts, literature" as well as both popular and esoteric-fashion and no doubt the thinking and behavior of ordinary men and women". These men sensed and expressed the underlying anxieties of the age, which resulted from profound social changes." (Bade 39)


Works Cited

Bade, Patrick. Femme Fatale: Images of Evil and Fascinating Women. London: Ash and Grant, 1979.
Neret, Gilles. Aubrey Beardsley. New York: Taschen, 1998.
Neret, Gilles. Gustav Klimt. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1996.

back to 2001 projects - home - next