In mid-century England the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood shaped the artistic image of the woman. Drawing from the poetry of Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Robert Browning, William Holman Hunt together with Dante Gabriel Rossetti, John Everett Millais and their followers created the artistic vision of the enclosed, contemplative woman. Examples of such works include Rossetti’s Lady Lilith, Millais’ Mariana and Hunt’s Morning Prayer. The woman in these works, usually a lone figure, gazes not at the viewer but inwardly, into herself. The artists of this time both enclosed and idealized the woman. Yet at the fin de siecle, in Aesthetic and Decadent imagery, representations of woman in art and literature changed from idealization to vilification.

In her book The Femme Fatale: Erotic Icon Virginia Allen argues that the femme fataleis not a product of the fin de siecle. Instead, Allen traces the image of the “seducer and destroyer of men” further back to the eighteenth-century eroticism of Goethe (Allen 1). Nevertheless, common consensus points to the image of the femme fataleas a product of the symbiosis of art and literature during the closing decades of the nineteenth century.

Historically, both in mythology and religion, women were always portrayed as having the potential to ruin men. Female figures such as Lilith, Eve, and Pandora were early femmes fatales. In Idols of Perversity Bram Dijkstra discusses how the artistic vision of the constrained, contemplative woman gave way to the image of the femme fatalein the last decades of the century due to economic and sociological issues. Dijkstra argues that Victorian rhetoric required upper and middle class women to be asexual and appear as invalids, what he terms “household nuns.” In contrast to their entirely asexual and often sickly wives and daughters, men saw working class women as healthy and beautiful sexual beings, something that drew them irresistibly. Furthermore, economic circumstances lead many young women of the working class to prostitution although the working conditions were only slightly less harsh than those of a regular factory job. Yet contemporary social theory dictated that many women entered into prostitution not to struggle to make a living but in order to satisfy their nymphomaniac desires. The upper and middle class men who were drawn to them were thus drawn to vampires and seductresses. The added factors of disease — pulmonary and especially venereal — meant that these vampirish women were not only bent on the destruction of men but sought the lower class’ revenge on the upper class.

Dijkstra points to the changing face of economics at the fin de siècle as another factor in the vilification of women. In this case, the femme fatalewas not the working class prostitute, but the middle class, inane woman who lived in a cage. Late nineteenth-century economics saw a rise in marketing to women, especially in fashion. Dijkstra identifies “the infinite concealing power of adornment” and fashion and introduces the Barthian rhetoric of the eroticism of concealment (365). The woman thus became a buying machine and her hunger for gold became synonymous with her hunger for sex; her desire for materiality brought men to ruin.

Dijkstra writes of the asexual late Victorian woman,

With her apparent hunger for gold, her outward purity and inward lust, her seeming self-sufficiency and blood thirsty virginity, she was the perfect foil to the pervasive masochism of the artists and intellectuals — the cultural middlemen — of the turn of the century. Spending the male’s money, woman symbolically wasted his seed, and in wasting his seed she caused him to lose the most precious source of nourishment in his transcendent intellect. What was worse, she could spend his money while remaining physically a virgin. Even a daughter could thus participate in the unmanning of her own father (374).

Turn of the century intellectuals thus needed to find a feminine symbol for this emasculation of man. The favorite femmes fatales became Circe enticing Ulysses (John William Waterhouse’s Circe Offering the Cup to Ulysses and Circe Invidiosa), Delilah cutting Samson’s hair, sphinxes holding the fate of a man between their paws (Franz von Stuck’s various representations including The Spinx and The Kiss of the Spinx and Gustave Moreau’s Oedipus and the Sphinx), and Sirens beckoning to sailors (Waterhouse’s Ulysses and the Sirens and Burne-Jones’ The Sirens).

Artists and intellectuals of the Aesthetic, Decadent, and Symbolist movements became obsessed with the image of the decapitation of men. Gustave Moreau, the French artist whose image of the femme fatalereverberated across Europe at the end of the nineteenth century, played with the theme of man’s decapitation by woman in his exploration into the myth of Orpheus. Orpheus, the most famous poet of classical myth, was a role model for the nineteenth century artist. After losing his wife Eurydice to Hades he began hating women for their hold on men’s hearts. For his condemnation of the Thracian maenads, the women beat and killed him, severing his head. Moreau’s Orpheus depicts a Thracian maid holding the decapitated head of Orpheus on his lyre. Moreau captures not the violence of Orpheus’ murder, but the young maiden’s moment of erotic contemplation. Furthermore, the decapitation of men figured into the development of the figure of the femme fatalein the images of the Biblical Judith and Salome. Dijkstra writes,

Virgin vampires, adolescents lusting after seed, unconscious whores who drained the veins of man’s intellect, who were out to atrophy his head — what better surrogates could there be to take the role of the executioner in man’s masochistic fancies?... Symbolic castration, woman’s lust for man’s severed head, the seat of the brain, that ‘great clot of seminal fluid’ Ezra Pound would still be talking about in the 1920s, was obviously the supreme act of the male’s physical submission to woman’s predatory desire. Turn-of-the-century artists searched far and wide to come up with instructive examples of such emasculating feminine perfidy. [374-75]

Salome, Judith, and Decapitated Men in the Fin de Siècle imagination


Allen, Virginia M. The Femme Fatale: Erotic Icon. Troy, New York: Whitson Publishing Company, 1983.

Dijkstra, Bram. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siecle Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Last modified 26 December 2006