The Femme Fatale: A Quintessential Symbolist Motif

The femme fatale is a character archetype that has long haunted our cultural imagination. Fascination with the femme fatale peaked around the fin de siècle, as evidenced by symbolist artworks.

Apr 8, 2023By Catherine Dent, MA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English Literature

femme fatale quintessential symbolist motif


The symbolist movement in art and literature emerged towards the end of the nineteenth century and favored fantastical, mythical, and even grotesque subject matter over depictions of the natural world. With a new emphasis on the psychological during this period, the subject matter of symbolist art was often erotic. This period of history in the west was also marked by significant social upheaval, including the advance of women’s rights and freedoms, such as the right to vote. Not everyone in society, of course, was pleased by these changes, as some were concerned by what they interpreted as the erosion of traditional values and lifestyles. It was no wonder that much of the symbolist art produced at this time relied heavily on depictions of the femme fatale, mining Biblical and mythological sources to create artworks that they felt spoke to their own historical moment.


Early Women: Eve and Pandora

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Die Sünde by Franz von Stuck, 1893, Neue Pinakothek, Munich, via The Belvedere, Vienna


Perhaps the quintessential femme fatale – within a Judeo-Christian context, at least – is Eve, whose act of transgression in the Garden of Eden led to the fall of man. She is also the subject of Franz von Stuck’s painting Die Sünde, which, when translated, means “The Sin,” thus suggesting that Eve is virtually synonymous with sin itself. Here, her hair and the serpent (representing Satan, who assumed the physical appearance of the serpent in order to tempt Eve in the Garden of Eden) frame her nude torso as if to draw attention to her own sexualization within the picture. If Eve has become synonymous with sin, then we might infer that she has also become a temptation herself as a result of the fall. After all, Adam and Eve only know that they are naked after having eaten the forbidden fruit. Thereafter, sexuality – especially feminine sexuality – takes on dangerous overtones.


However, “The Sin” need not refer only to Eve, who, after all, is not named in the title of the painting. The sin might also point to the serpent itself, as Satan (or Lucifer, as he was called when he was an angel) rebelled against God. The title of the painting might also point to the allegorical and feminized figure of Sin in John Milton’s Paradise Lost, who is fathered by Satan. The painting thus draws on a range of symbolic connotations, as is typical of symbolist artwork, though the idea of the dangerous and morally corrosive femme fatale constellates these various connotations.


pandora odilon redon
Pandora by Odilon Redon, 1914, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


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As the femme fatale is an archetype, it is no surprise that she appears across many different cultures and mythologies. Just as Eve brings sin and hardship into the world in the Judeo-Christian tradition, in Greek mythology, it is Pandora who unleashes suffering on humanity by opening a jar given to her by Zeus as a wedding present with the instruction that she should never open it. Odilon Redon’s painting Pandora from 1914 captures Pandora in a moment of innocence before opening the jar, which is clasped in her hands in the painting. That is to say, Redon depicts the calm before the storm.


What is perhaps most striking about Redon’s painting, however, is the lack of specific detail (beyond the title of the painting) linking the image to Pandora. She is seen depicted in a garden setting, which might allow us to project other femme fatales such as Eve onto the artwork. By bringing Eve and Pandora into alignment, Redon’s painting might therefore suggest that, as archetypes, the various femme fatales of Biblical and mythic traditions are largely interchangeable. The important thing is not the specific woman herself but the idea she embodies: the beautiful, beguiling, dangerous woman.


The Many Sphinxes of Symbolist Art

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Oedipus and the Sphinx by Gustave Moreau, 1864, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


Staying with Greek mythology, symbolist artists frequently drew on the figure of the Sphinx in their preoccupation with the femme fatale. This can be seen in The Kiss of the Sphinx (1895), also by von Stuck, and in Gustave Moreau’s painting, Oedipus and the Sphinx, of 1864.


Alison W. Chang notes the perilous proximity of the Sphinx’s clawed hind paws to Oedipus’ genitals, which has the effect, she argues, of “enhancing the image’s sexual tension.” It also hints at the danger of castration, by which the man is symbolically emasculated, thus clearly drawing on tensions and anxieties of the period surrounding changing gender roles. The proximity of the Sphinx’s claws to Oedipus’ genitals – with some help from a draping piece of fabric – also preserves his modesty. This, interestingly, is in sharp contrast with the presentation of the female figure in von Stuck’s Die Sünde. Where the male hero is muscular and modest, the unspecified female figure is exposed and sexualized.


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Caresses by Fernand Khnopff, 1896, The Royal Museum of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels, Belgium, via Daily Art Magazine


The preoccupation with the Sphinx in symbolist art can be related to Fernand Khnopff’s curious painting of 1896, Caresses. Here, the Sphinx is less typical than that of Moreau’s painting insofar as she has no wings and has the body of a leopard rather than a lion. She is also not as overly feminized as Moreau’s Sphinx: her jaw is square and masculine, and her head appears larger than that of Oedipus, whereas the face of Moreau’s Sphinx is almost childlike in her excessive femininity.


Moreover, just as the female figure in Gustav Klimt’s symbolist painting The Kiss holds herself at an awkward angle as if to evade the male figure’s kiss, in Khnopff’s painting here, Oedipus stands as if trying to extricate himself from the Sphinx, suggesting her greater physical strength.


While this may be seen as emasculating, the myth of Oedipus and the Sphinx is less a tale of brawn than of brains. According to the myth, the Sphinx plagued the people of Thebes by posing a riddle to all passers-by and killing those who could not answer. When she poses her riddle to Oedipus – “What creature walks on four legs in the morning, two legs at noon, and three in the evening?” – he becomes the first and only person to correctly answer: man. The Sphinx then kills herself, while Oedipus is hailed as a hero and marries the Queen of Thebes, Jocasta, who, unbeknownst to him, is, in fact, his own mother.


Biblical Beheadings: Salomé and Judith

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The Apparition by Gustave Moreau, 1876-77, via Harvard Art Museums, Cambridge


Even more significant than the symbolist movement’s preoccupation with the Sphinx was the phenomenon of “Salomania” during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Accordingly, Salomé is depicted in myriad symbolist artworks, including paintings by Pierre Bonnaud and Henri Regnault. Gustave Moreau’s The Apparition of 1876-77, however, is a particularly interesting – and disturbing – iteration of this cultural trend. The head of John the Baptist appears as an apparition to the scantily clad Salomé. His severed head radiates light, which is in implicit contrast with her nudity: where he is ethereal, she is earthly.


judith head holofernes gustav klimt
Judith and the Head of Holofernes by Gustav Klimt, 1901, from the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere, Vienna, via Art and the Bible


When viewed in the context of the “Salomania” of the period, Gustav Klimt’s 1901 painting Judith and the Head of Holofernes becomes increasingly complex and interesting. Typically, Judith’s slaying of Holofernes is interpreted as both an act of heroism and an indication of the strength of her faith. Klimt, however, presents her in such a way as to draw her into alignment with Salomé. Her head is thrown back, her face is flushed, and her torso is nude and exposed to the viewer’s gaze. As such, she is dangerously similar to contemporary artistic depictions of Salomé, suggesting that Klimt may have been drawing on this tradition in painting his Judith. Even typically virtuous women of the Bible, then, could be presented as femme fatales by virtue of their gender and sexuality in symbolist artworks.


Dangerous Daughters: Gustav Klimt’s Danäe


Klimt’s artistic depiction of Danäe brings us back to Greek mythology. Danäe was an Argive Princess, the daughter (and only child) of Acrisius, the King of Argos. Acrisius longed for a male heir and consulted the oracle of Delphi to ask whether he would ever beget a son. The oracle informed him that he would not, though his daughter, Danäe, would, and her son would be the death of him. In an attempt to frustrate the prophecy, Acrisius had his daughter (who, at the time, was unmarried and childless) locked away in a chamber with only one skylight for light and air. It was through this skylight, however, that Zeus appeared to Danäe in the form of a shower of golden rain. In this form, he impregnated Danäe, who then gave birth to the hero Perseus.


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Danäe by Gustav Klimt, 1907, from Galerie Würthle, Vienna, via Daily Art Magazine


It is this moment of conception that is depicted in Klimt’s painting. Though Danäe can be considered a femme fatale insofar as she gives birth to her father’s killer, she is an unwilling participant in this prophecy – a point that Klimt appears to highlight by depicting her as being asleep when Zeus impregnates her, suggesting that this strange sexual encounter would be more aptly described as rape. Moreover, her fingers are curled in much the same way as those of the female figure in Klimt’s more famous painting, The Kiss, which art historian James Fox interprets as a non-consensual embrace, given the female figure’s resistant body language. While she may be considered a femme fatale, there is certainly reason to consider Danäe a victim of the actions of men, too.


As Virginia M. Allen has argued, the femme fatale as an archetype was not the invention of the fin de siècle imagination. Nonetheless, interest in the femme fatale as a subject for artistic depiction certainly peaked during the symbolist movement, which – with its fascination with the mythical, the erotic, and the grotesque – is hardly a coincidence. While we certainly should not automatically assume that these paintings denote any misogynistic sentiments on the part of the symbolist artists who created them, they do speak to a growing cultural fear around women and power during a time when women were actively seeking greater equality with men.


Further Reading:


Allen, Virginia M. (1983). The Femme Fatale: Erotic Icon. Albany, NY: Whitston Publishing Company.

Chang, Alison W. (2016). ‘How Women of the 19th Century Were Cast as Dangerous Vampires and Femmes Fatales.’ Artsy.

Fox, James. ‘The Dark Side of The Kiss.’ BBC.

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By Catherine DentMA 20th and 21st Century Literary Studies, BA English LiteratureCatherine holds a first-class BA from Durham University and an MA with distinction, also from Durham, where she specialized in the representation of glass objects in the work of Virginia Woolf. In her spare time, she enjoys writing fiction, reading, and spending time with her rescue dog, Finn.