Depictions of Salome in the mid-nineteenth century were still traditional representation of the Biblical figure; the young woman was shown to still be waiting for her trophy. Henry Regnault, Alfred Stevens, and Benjamin-Constant depicted Salome with or without a charger, but still awaiting the saint’s head. But by the 1880s, Salome triumphantly carried the fully depicted bloody head of the saint. As Bram Dijkstra points out, “Otto Friedrich’s triumphant anorexic Salome of around 1912, shown dancing, head in hand, on the circular pattern of her feminine inscrutability, is a characteristic example of this genre of representation” (Dijkstra 388). And the symbiosis of art and literature at the fin de siècle developed the image of Salome as a femme fatale.

The French Symbolist painter Gustave Moreau gave the story of Salome its initial impetus in 1876. He had already introduced into the artistic and intellectual milieu of the time a large repertoire of perverse women. Moreau’s various representations of Salome (he did over seventy drawings of her) such as Salome, Salome Dancing before Herod and Salome Brandishing the Head of John the Baptist created a visual repertoire of the femme fatale’s story for the fin de siècle intellectual and artistic imagination. The novelist Joris-Karl Huysman’s wrote about Moreau’s 1876 Salome in Against the Grain, making Salome the object of his hero’s fantasies of feminine evil. And contemporarily, the French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote his story “Herodias” which placed the responsibility primarily on Salome’s mother. Yet in this account Salome appears as a virginal innocent, dancing of a passion that her body has not yet experienced; Flaubert’s Salome is the “virgin whore” Dijkstra refers to in his book Idols of Perversity.

Dijkstra writes of the obsession with the figure of Salome as a bloodthirsty virgin. “In the turn-of-the-century imagination, the figure of Salome epitomized the inherent perversity of women: their eternal circularity and their ability to destroy the male’s soul even while they remained nominally chaste in body” (Dijkstra 384). He then eloquently explicates the fin de siècle rhetoric of virginity as related to the femme fatale.

virginity is the worst form of feminine whoredom, because in her virginity woman maintains her self-sufficiency, and hence her power to ‘decapitate’ the male by making him wait in impotent longing for her compliance to his wishes. Then, when he loses patience, she, in effect, perversely ‘forces’ him to rape her, to ‘slay’ her in order to regain his masculinity (Dijkstra 385).

In the same vein, the French poet and critic Stephane Mallarme spent his entire lifetime writing the poem entitled “Herodiade” in which he explores the theme of Salome as a virgin whore. In Salome’s voice, Mallarme writes (in Dijkstra 385),

The horror of my virginity
Delights me, and I would envelope me
In the terror of my tresses, that, by night,
Inviolate reptile, I might feel the white
And glimmering radiance of thy frozen fire,
Thou art chaste and diest of desire,
White night of ice and of the cruel snow!

Furthermore, Dijkstra argues that part of the allure of Salome was rooted in her Semitic origin. Turn of the century society considered Jews, women, and Africans degenerates. In visual depictions, making Salome appear as Semitic as possible hence doubled her degeneracy. Accordingly in the fin de siècle imagination, Salome was guilty not only of the decapitation of John the Baptist, the violent humiliation and symbolic emasculation of all men but also, quite plainly, of being Jewish and a woman. Dijkstra concludes his book by linking gynecide to genocide. He argues that the violence felt towards the femme fataleat the turn of the century later shifted from the “Woman Question” to the “Jewish Question” and influenced the events of the twentieth century. Thus the image of Salome as a femme fatale reverberated through the fin de siècle imagination and into the twentieth century.

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


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