During the second half of the nineteenth century, because more and more women were dissatisfied with their condition, they demanded everything from the right to vote to the right to wear trousers. A good number of men found this "strong-minded woman" rather threatening. Peter Gay, the wellknown Freudian historian, claims that the fear of women
is born of man's early total dependence on his mother and his longing, frustrated love for her, his defenseless lassitude after intercourse, and the frightening aspect and portentous implications of the female genitals... see[ing] woman as a castrated male, the absence of her penis reads like a threat to his own. The Medusa and all the dampers to man's virility she stands for are a very old story.
An aggressive woman only exacerbates these fears, which find their way into artwork in representations of this femme fatale throughout history.
The artist has a rich tradition of dangerous women to choose from: Eve, Phyllis, Delilah, Cleopatra, Salome. She became an archetype in all art forms, a programmatic seducer and killer of men. In her most threatening form, "the castrating sisterhood" as Gay calls it, she maims or slays her potential male lover -- such as Salome dancing with the decapitated head of John the Baptist, Judith slaying Holofernes, and Delilah cutting Samson's hair in artwork done by Max Liebermann, Franz von Stuck, and Aubrey Beardsley.
Thus, the dangerous woman is at her worst when the frightening connection between "sexual consummation and male vulnerability" is exploited by the woman. The sphinx, then, arose as a popular femme fatale. Being half woman and half animal, she is the very embodiment of lust and peril. In a poem by Heinrich Heine in 1839, he imagines the sexual encounter with the sphinx -- a terrible mixture of pleasure and pain as she kisses the speaker and simultaneously tears at him with her claws. In the latter half of the century, this version of the sphinx came to be represented in paintings by Gustave Moreau, Edvard Munch, and Jean Auguste Ingres.
But the femme fatale need not be so blunt and obvious. Gay points out that Dante Gabriel Rossetti's large mannish, highly sensual women also intimidate the male viewer. With their tell-tale pout, thick necks and broad shoulders, and web of serpentine hair, the hordes of Rossetti women almost casually display their seductive powers -- making a male viewer rather unsettled.
Even established works from ages past, such as the highly removed Mona Lisa have a dark potential. She has existed in mystery for ages, smiling in secretive self-knowledge of her vampirish immortality.
The question arises, then, do these artists accurately measure the climate of the times, or do they offer only their own personal fears and not the vast opinion of the nineteenth century male populace? Gay allows for the latter possibility, but points out that "no other century depicted woman as vampire, as castrator, as killer so consistently, so programmatically, and so nakedly as the nineteenth."
Last modified 1996