How Women of the 19th Century Were Cast as Dangerous Vampires and Femmes Fatales
On July 23, 1877, crowds gathered in a Parisian courtroom to witness the trial of the Widow Gras, who was accused of manipulating a workman into throwing acid into the face of her lover. This crime, and others like it, inspired the Swiss-born artist
Appearing frequently in the visual arts and literature of the late 19th century, the era of
This archetype rose to prominence partly in response to the shifting status of women in society. Throughout the 19th century in France and Northern Europe, activists achieved inroads towards women’s civil and political rights, and challenged long-held assumptions about a woman’s role in the workplace, the home, and in romantic relationships. While wives were expected to be obedient and subservient to their husbands, many artists and writers of the late 19th century (fin-de-siècle) depicted women as powerfully and dangerously alluring, reflecting society’s fear of increasingly autonomous women. Though many of these works can be interpreted as misogynistic, they are the product of their time, manifesting a response to the challenges to established definitions of masculinity and femininity during the 19th century.
The Femme Fatale as Monster
The painting Vampire (1893), by the Norwegian artist
Revisiting Famous Femmes Fatales
Artists such as Moreau, mythological femmes fatales to reinforce the dangers of succumbing to a woman’s sexual allure. In von Stuck’s painting Die Sünde (Sin) (ca. 1908), which refers to Eve in the Garden of Eden, a naked woman aggressively returns the viewer’s gaze, a snake coiled around her torso and neck so that it frames her breasts and reinforces her seductiveness. Salome, the notorious femme fatale of the New Testament, was also a popular subject among artists of the late 19th century. In the story, her sexualized dance convinces Herod to grant her a reward, and she demands John the Baptist’s head on a platter. Moreau’s watercolor The Apparition (1874-76) shows a scantily clad Salome engaged in a vision of her eventual conquest, the severed head of John the Baptist. The revival of these dangerous women in both literature and the visual arts served as a cautionary tale for men and women of the period.
The Everyday Femme Fatale
Not every female lover in fin-de-siècle art was a villain of mythic proportions. Artists also depicted the heartache and complexities of everyday romantic relationships. The French artist
Alison W. Chang
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