Femme Fatale in 19th-century art and beyond.
“If you loved me ever so little,
I could bear the bonds that gall,
I could dream the bonds were brittle;
You do not love me at al. (…)
You are crueller, you that we love,
Than hatred, hunger, or death;
You have eyes and breasts like a dove,
And you kill men’s hearts with a breath.”
Satia Te Sanguine by Algernon Charles Swinburne
In the second half of the 19th century, Femme Fatales began to appear more frequently in European art, literature, poetry, plays and even operas, than in previous centuries. So much so that by the end of the same century, the image of the evil, destructive yet enticingly alluring woman had found her way into every aspect of mainstream culture from advertisements to appear as a design on porcelain, and even in jewellery.
The sources of inspiration to these potentially misogynistic male artists catering to their mainly male conservatively Victorian audience were, perhaps not surprisingly most often taken from characters in the bible. Oh, Jezebel! You wearer of makeup! Judith, the beheader of men! And of course, Salome, who put on one hell of a good dance! They were all favourites, chosen for their personification of the dangerous, deceitful women who tempted men to befall disastrous fates. In fact, the bible, its cup floweth over so much with Femme Fatales that while I’m at it, I may as well throw in Delilah who had the audacity to prove what I’ve always believed, a man’s strength really does lay in his hair! And my personal favourite, Lilith, the first “wife” of Adam, who refused to obey her man and thus was transformed into a daemon. Way to go Lilith!
Heinrich Heine, Oscar Wilde, Gustave Flaubert and my beloved Baudelaire, they all took inspiration from the bible but when flogging a dead religious horse became too tiresome, artists turned to more hedonistic sources, particularly those found in the shadow of Mount Olympus. Greek mythology not only provided justification for scantily clad ladies but also served as a great literary source for such fun Fatales as those seductresses to beat all seductresses, the Sirens. Come on, luring sailors with song and smashing their boats on rocks for fun is a tough act to better. However, if mythic was too incredulous for your audience, not a problem, simply flick through the pages of history and pick out some Femme Fatale classic such as Cleopatra. What. Do you think bringing an entire empire into chaos using only your feminine charm would have gone without mention here?
Though the sources may have been varied, what’s fascinating is how similarly artists described Femme Fatales, be it through words or through an image on a canvas. Be it a half woman half beast or a figure from the sea such as a mermaid, these women were more often than not pale, mysterious, strong, destructive with stone-cold hearts and yet absolutely fascinating. (Worth dying for…)
“Beautiful always beyond desire and cruel beyond words: fairer than heaven and more terrible than hell: pale withered and weary with wrong-doing; a silent anger against God and man burns white and repressed, through her clear features… Her eyes are full of proud and passionless lust after gold and blood: her hair close and curled seems ready to shudder asunder and divide into snakes. Her throat, full and fresh, round and hard to the eye as her bosom and arms, is erect and stately, the head set firm on it without any drop or lift of the chin: her mouth crueller than a tiger’s, colder than a snake’s and beautiful beyond a woman’s. She is the deadlier Venus incarnate.” – Algernon Swinburne, whom I personally would put on the pedestal of artists best describing what a Femme Fatale is by this, his description of a drawing of a women’s head by Michelangelo.
As the 19th century drew to a close, so Femme Fatales had seemingly reached their pinnacle, in painting at least. Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who died in 1882, had given us his visions of Lucrezia Borgia, Lilith, Helen of Troy and my favourite painting of his, Pandora (Knowing his obsession with red hair, I wonder if his obsession would have included me, had we met). Meanwhile, Gustav Klimt was arguably the last major painter to choose a Femme Fatale theme as the centre point of his paintings, “Judith and the Head of Holofernes” from 1901 being his most recognisable.
With the start of the 20th century, the painting world had moved on. 1905 possibly marking the date of its end to a fascination with Femme Fatales with a painting by Kees van Dongen, creatively entitled… “Femme Fatale”. This wasn’t however the last we see of these wicked women. No, not at all! Like shifting sands, they had merely migrated to a new medium, who’s way was paved by the likes of real-life Femme Fatales, Cora Pearl, La Paiva and Lillie Langtry, women with reputations that were measured by the numbers of men who’s lives they had ruined!
This new medium of which I speak is of course film and here is where the Femme Fatale flourished. She became a creature of beauty, her powers of seductions now so seemingly apparent. Gone were the shackles of the stiff Victorian age, heretofore we had a real woman!
My top 9 Femme Fatales in film:
1). Marlene Dietrich in Shanghai Express (1932)
“It took more than one man to change my name to Shanghai Lily.”
2). Rita Hayworth in Gilda (1946)
“Didn’t you hear about me, Gabe? If I’d been a ranch, they would’ve named me the BR Nothing.”
3). Rita Hayworth in The Lady from Shanghai (1947)
“ I told you, you know nothing about wickedness.”
4) Lana Turner in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946 )
5) Ann Blyth in Mildred Pierce (1945)
“ He never loved you. It’s always been me.I’ve got what I wanted. Monte’s going to divorce you and marry me.”
6) Barbara Stanwyck in Double Indemnity (1944)
7) Joan Bennett in Scarlet Street (1944 )
“How can a man be so dumb…I wanted to laugh in your face ever since the moment I met you. You’re old and ugly and I’m sick of you. Sick, sick, sick!
8) Gene Tierney in Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
9) Jean Gillie in Decoy (1946 )
My Femme Fatale inspired look consisting of true vintage clothes and accessories.
In the pictures taken by Gregory Michael King, I’m wearing:
Beautiful 1940s suit purchased from Advantage In Vintage on Etsy. You can read about some of my favourite vintage shops on Etsy here.
1940s hat I bought in London many moons ago
A vintage brooch I found in my mom’s jewellery box. 🙂
Vivienne Westwood Melissa shoes