Femme Fatales- The Ultimate Monsters

“The femme fatale mirrors the anxiety of a patriarchal society that fears what it can’t control”


In the late 19th century there was a progressive shift in the role of women in society. The unanimous reaction from men and especially male artists of this time, was fear of what women could be capable of. Some artists turned their fantasies into powerful goddesses while others turned women into sinful monsters not from this world. Regardless, everything and everyone these women touched was ruined or killed. Death by poisoning, beheading, witchcraft and more! The art about femme fatales were visual conspiracy theories, becoming a new aged form of mythology.

The archetype of the femme fatale was global but the same basic narrative was the same throughout. A woman’s beauty had the ability to seduce men and ruin their lives. The “New Woman” of society was described as powerful, independent, sexually free which translated to dangerous, sinful and a problem to the minds of men. It was believed that the “New Woman” was a more modern reincarnation of Eve and it was assumed that women of the time were even bigger monsters. 


While the art of this time was called “fin de siecle” meaning end of the century, could it be that male artists of time thought it was the end of patriarchal society as they knew it? Any woman could be transformed into a femme fatale but some muses were repeated across multiple artists. Death seen as being a woman was a common line of thinking. In a similar way the devil as well would be personified to be shockingly feminine. Other popular women were Circe, Lady Lilith (believed to be Adam’s first wife before Eve but equally as monstrous), the Madonna/Virgin Mary, and Salome. 

The story around Salome was that she had seduced a king who promised her anything and all she asked for was a head on a platter. The king in question was King Herod and the man’s head she requested was John the Baptist. Countless Renaissance painters have portrayed the act of Salome receiving the head of the platter such as in the works of Giampietrino or Caravaggio.

Further Reading:

Femme Fatales- The Rise, Fall and Rebirth of the Archetype

How Women of the 19th Century Were Cast as Dangerous Vampires and Femme Fatales

“The Bat-Woman”

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