During the Victorian period, the nude proliferated as a genre just as it had in earlier art, despite conceptions that a prudish society dominated the time period. However, nudes often required some distance in its depiction in order to avoid condemnation, either by a title from mythology or an exoticized subject matter. Sometimes, the bodies themselves showed this removal from the realm of the real by omitting pubic hair or the genitals altogether. Thus, even artworks that barely fulfilled these requirements or even hid behind them in their barest terms, could bring the highly sensual femme fatale to prestigious exhibitions.
Many artists became obsessed with portraying women such as William Etty, Jean Auguste Ingres, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and Edward Burne-Jones, to name a few. Etty claimed he had a deep desire to paint God's greatest creation (woman) with perfection, and set himself upon the task with the best of intentions, at least as far as he was consciously aware. Ingres also had a fascination with the female form, purposefully elongating the proportions to accentuate a woman's sinuous curves. He too meant only to portray -- or rather, perfect -- the beauty of Woman. Rossetti and his fair lady showed a male worship of his fantasy woman which he painted on numberless canvases. Burne-Jones identified himself with King Cophetua, searching for his pure Beggar Maid, but found himself always beguiled by Nimbues and Circes. What consequences were there for their programmatic treatment of the female subject? What impact did their art have on Victorian ideas of woman, her body and her sexuality?
Jan Marsh in her book The Pre-Raphaelite Sisterhood, contends that the image of the femme fatale became a crucial figure in the Pre-Raphaelites' vocabulary as well as that of the Decadents. She allows that artists "'gazed, fascinated but repelled, at women of a curious frigidity, cold but sensual, erotic but invulnerable.'" and that "'Their attitudes are piped with a fear of female malevolence, and characteristically they attempt to control this fear by boiling down the variety of the individual experience into the image of a single symbolic figure.'" However, Marsh also recognizes that in this "boiled down" femme fatale, "women are rendered decorative, depersonalized; they become passive figures rather than characters in a story or drama... women are reduced to an aesthetic arrangement of sexual parts, for male fantasies."
In effect, artists like Ingres, Etty, Rossetti and Burne-Jones reduce the female subject to a type: a formula of rounded pieces of flesh, hair and facial features. They weren't portraying individual women, but an idealized composite of recognizable parts. Helene E. Roberts makes note of this modeling in her discussion of paintings' portrayals of women in the first twenty-five years of Victoria's reign, saying that artists
have reduced her image [the woman's body], nude or clothed, to volumes, textures and surface tones. Like peaches and pears, a woman's body allowed the attractive play of light and shade on a pleasing composition of curves, spheres and smooth surfaces. It not only titillated the erotic in man [and woman], but was in its very geometry aesthetically pleasing.
Such a treatment, therefore, not only objectified the woman but also dismembered her body and her identity; the artistically rendered woman is no longer an individual person but really the pleasing arrangement of shapes and light, easily allowing "peaches and pears" to substitute for flesh. Occurrences of this dismemberment was especially so in depictions of the femme fatale, whose dangerous sexual powers artists felt the need to reign in somehow to make her more palatable to Victorian audiences. Besides the already disarming qualities of a mythological title or the choice of painting the femme fatale safely asleep, viewers could further distance their thoughts about her potential destructiveness or rampant, perverse sexuality by talking about and admiring elements of the art (form, color, line, composition). The viewer, though indeed seeing all of the female body, need only see the shapes of lines and light which represented breasts or the hips and could probably supply the rest of the image from a vocabulary of artistic conventions. An artistic discourse such as this goes beyond objectification towards a sort of visual synecdoche: taking the parts to represent the whole.
Indeed, when taking the femme fatale as an object, scopophilia occurs on two levels. The first being the artist upon his nude or clothed model and the second, the viewer upon the art object. Scopophilia takes "other people as objects, subjecting them to a controlling and curious gaze." Superficially, it reaffirms control in the hands of those who look while taking it away from the object looked at. However, the victims of this voyeurism still retain a certain amount power over the viewer, who is enthralled with fascination. The very proliferation of the femme fatale in art and literature asserts that attempts to conquer her in formulas and reductions of words, paint or stone only succeeded partially. Even dismemberment through stylization meant that the powers of the femme fatale weighed heavily upon the artists who created her and the audiences who read or looked at her.
Mulvey, Laura. "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Feminisms: an anothology of literary theory and criticism. ed. Robyn R. Warhol and Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1991, 432-442.
Last modified 1996