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Femme Fatal in Late 19th Century

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  • Pages: 9
  • Word count: 2155
  • Category: Bible

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            Femme fatale refers to the iconic figure of a woman who has excellent charm and astonishing beauty. Such woman has the ability to capture men with her alluring physique, controlling and leading them into compromising and or perilous circumstances. In the depths of fiction, she is often, if not always, the romantic interest of the protagonist of a certain story and she exists in almost any form throughout the course of time.

            Femme fatale had its most primitive and most prominent appearances or existence in myths and legends. In the earliest myths and legends, femme fatale had existed in a lot of forms and guises. Through time, it had changed to conform or obey the rules of the present or existing culture, religion, literature, and arts. Looking at femme fatale in 19th century art would be easier upon looking at its development through time. It could be understood through the development of the iconic figures of femme fatale, through the eyes of different painters and in different perspectives.

In the Bible, Eve was considered to be the most renowned femme fatale. Eve was able to bring about the fall or descend of man. When she gave in to the temptations of the serpent, which was considered to be the devil in the Garden of Eden, she tempted Adam along with her to his demise.[1] Eve tempted Adam using her alluring sexuality and charm to eat the forbidden fruit, leading them both to peril, and thus, in academic views, she became the first true iconic figure of femme fatale.

Eve and or the Fall of Man had been used as subjects for paintings and other works of art through time. In the Museum of Fine Arts in Budapest, there is a painting of Adam and Eve in separate artworks. The painting of Eve was on a wood, 208 x 83.5 cm and was painted in 1520-23. There is a strong distinction on the figure of Eve where certain contours in the painting of Eve signifies or shows the drawing skills of the artist. Furthermore, it can be seen that there is a certain influence of Durer, also an artist who had created paintings of Adam and Eve in 1504 and 1507. Upon looking at the painting of Eve, a spectator or observer would clearly see Eve’s alluring body and a certain feeling of temptation upon looking at her face.

On a different perspective, they say that Eve’s counterpart in Jewish legend is the true femme fatale. Eve’s counterpart, Lilith was also the wife of Adam. Just like Eve, Lilith had the charm and sexuality to take over or control Adam to her will but unlike Eve, Lilith existed as God’s creation from clay. Eve was created from the ribs of Adam, but Lilith was created the same way as Adam was created which may signify that Eve was born subordinate to Adam while Lilith was born of the equal power as Adam.[2] Independence, which is a principal or important characteristic of being a femme fatale, is exercised by Lilith.

Unlike Eve, Lilith fights with Adam and later on, she leaves him and went to the bank of the Red Sea. It was said that Lilith was found to be having demonic sex and that she was able to raise havoc with patriarchy.  In an artwork or painting of Lilith created in 1887 by Hon John Collier, the same attractive physical body of a femme fatale or of Eve can be observed. The artwork was made using oil in canvas, where Lilith with a snake wrapped right leg up to her hips and with the snake’s head on her right shoulder. Looking or observing Lilith’s face, it seems as if Lilith is enjoying the company of the snake, adding an eerie or cold feeling in an observer’s vein.

Femme fatale can also be observed in some characters from the Old Testament. The classic example of a femme fatale is Delilah who was said to be a temptress. Delilah who was from the valley of Sorek was known for her voluptuary and treachery against Samson, the physically powerful and well known man of Nazirite. She created a plot to deceive Samson in revealing his secret regarding the source of his strength, which is his hair. After knowing Samson’s source of strength, she betrayed him and cut his hair resulting to a weak and defenseless Samson.[3]

Delilah could mean or can be synonymous to the words “flirtatious” and or “inclined towards love. Furthermore, as a femme fatale, Delilah’s name would give an insinuation that she was considered to be the goddess of sexual love. These characteristic and features of Delilah and her actions or treachery can be clearly observed in a painting made by Ruben. “Samson and Delilah” which was created in 1609 using oil on wood, 185 x 205 cm in size shows the distilled action in the story of Samson and Delilah in one finite moment.

Even if the observer’s eyes would be lazy enough to look at it, the dynamic of this work of art simply stimulates and enliven these. Upon observing the painting, it can be noted that Samson’s right feet sets in a certain motion as observed when it comes to the lower right side of the artwork. There is a diagonal thrust on this artwork’s composition leading to the old crone’s face down all the way through Delilah. Furthermore, this leads to Samson’s left hand and traversing Delilah’s dress to Samson’s feet. The result of such motion is a monumental triangle on the painting.

Even if Delilah was said to be an iconic figure of a femme fatale, there is still a sense of balance observed between Delilah’s naked flesh and her clothed flesh. Also, this balance is noticeable or observable within or upon the interplay of the other characters. There is a rippling landscape of naked flesh, hands, feet and muscles where light is an important factor in producing a certain sense of sensuality. There is also a rich voluptuousness observed through the effects of the light on Samson and Delilah’s satiated body after sex. Ruben was also able to add drama to the moment before Samson wakes up through the characters, more specifically soldiers, outside the door and observers could feel a certain oneness with the painting. Looking at the artwork makes observers feel as if they are also in the painting or a part of the moment depicted in the painting.[4]

In 1821, a painting on Samson and Delilah was made by Joseph Desire Court showing the same balance of flesh, naked and clothed and the feeling of being in the artwork or on the captivated moment of Samson’s capture by the Philistine. A noticeable similarity between the two paintings is the naked flesh and well toned muscle of Samson and the breast of Delilah which is outside her dress. For both paintings, the demise of Samson through the treachery of Delilah and her charm is strongly depicted or shown.

The femme fatale can also be observed in other aspects and not just from stories or tales from the Bible. Another classic example of a femme fatale is Cleopatra, the Ptolemaic queen wearing a Vulture headdress. She can be considered a classic example of a “dark lady” representing femme fatale with her ambitions. Just like the usual characteristics or features of the other iconic figures of femme fatale, Cleopatra also has charm and sexual prowess, which gave her the ability to lead a revolution against her brother and marry her second brother. Cleopatra’s constant need for power led her to the murder of Caesar and even to her marriage with Marc Anthony.[5] Cleopatra, though committed suicide together with her romantic partner, she was known because of her characteristics as a femme fatale and her enthralling nature.

Cleopatra’s nature as the “dark lady” can be observed through her actions regarding the prisoners which are condemned during her regime. Cleopatra used or tested poisons, where the poisons may signify her charm and slyness, on the condemned prisoners. Her actions were used as a subject in 1887 oil in canvas artwork, 36 x 48 inches in size and were entitled “Cleopatra Testing Poisons on Condemned Prisoners”. The artwork really catches the eyes due to its vibrant atmosphere with a subtle interaction of colors and lighting effects. The agony and the pain experienced by the prisoners can be felt by the observers as upon closely looking at them.

With regards to Cleopatra, with her foot on a relaxed position and body resting comfortable on a couch, it can be said or implied that her conscience is not shuddered at all or that she does not feel any guilt of what she is doing. The character or lady besides Cleopatra with a tilted head and her hands or fingers near her throat might show as if she feels pity on the prisoner or that she feels their pain. Cleopatra, just like the other figures of femme fatale, or women who has great charms and stunning physique on the previous paintings, has exposed breasts, a well toned and smooth skin.

Femme fatal is not only portrayed in the looks and beauty of women, having the full physique of women. Even female mythological creatures such as the Siren, a mythological character can be an example of femme fatale in a different form. Sirens are said to be half woman and half birds, and in some literature and paintings, they are half woman and half fishes. These creatures are definitely known and are considered legendary when it comes to corruption of men and capturing the minds of men through their songs, oftentimes devouring them.[6]

John William Waterhouse created a painting depicting Ulysses and his crew surrounded by a flock of Sirens (half women, half birds)[7] in 1891 and in 1909, Herbert Draper created another painting of the same theme but this time, the sirens are half women and half fishes. Upon observing Waterhouse’s painting, a feeling of power from the Sirens can be felt and a certain fear can be depicted. Draper’s painting also shows the fear of men to these creatures, ironic to their attractive looks. Waterhouse’s painting shows the strength or prowess of femme fatal while Draper’s painting shows the captivating bodies and curves of beauty of femme fatal. Lighting in Draper’s painting gives emphasis on the sirens smooth, fair and enticing bodies, with their breasts exposed.

Femme fatale and its archetypes continue to thrive in literature, arts, contemporary pop and even in popular movies. Femme fatal has become stable in almost any genre and has advanced as a representation of women’s freedom. Furthermore, femme fatale is a symbol for women’s power and liberation. She is sexy but sometimes treacherous and most often than not, she is unsympathetic.  She is continuously metamorphosizing and becoming symbols for social perspectives. Throughout the course of time, the characteristics and features of femme fatal in almost all its archetypes and iconic figures remain the same, strong, alluring and dangerous.


Anderson, Gary A. Literature on Addam and Eve: Collected Essays. Leiden: Brill, N.H.E.J., N.V. Koninklijke, Boekhandel en Drukkerij


Freeman, Morton S. New Dictionary of Eponyms. Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 1997.

Hambling, Maggi. “Samson and Delilah.” Word Press Entries (February 2006). http://www.outofrange.net/2006/02/ (accessed August 17, 2007)

Krymer-Kensky, Tikva. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories. Westminster, MD, USA: Knopf Publishing Group, 2004.

Leggatt, Alexander. Shakespeare’s Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays. Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1989.

Luttikhuizen, Gerard P. Creation of Man and Woman: Interpretations of the Biblical in Jewish and Christian Traditions. Leiden: Brill, N.H.E.J., N.V. Koninklijke, Boekhandel en Drukkerij, 2000.

Rohmann, Chris, and Jane Davidson Reid. The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1900s. North Carolina: Oxford University Press, 1993.

[1] Gary A. Anderson. Literature on Addam and Eve: Collected Essays (Leiden: Brill, N.H.E.J., N.V. Koninklijke, Boekhandel en Drukkerij, 2000)

[2] Gerard P. Luttikhuizen. Creation of Man and Woman: Interpretations of the Biblical in Jewish and Christian Traditions (Leiden: Brill, N.H.E.J., N.V. Koninklijke, Boekhandel en Drukkerij, 2000)

[3] Tikva Krymer-Kensky. Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories (Westminster, MD, USA: Knopf Publishing Group, 2004)

[4] Maggi Hambling. “Samson and Delilah”, (Word Press Entries, 2006), http://www.outofrange.net/2006/02/ (accessed August 17, 2007)

[5] Alexander Leggat. Shakespeare’s Political Drama: The History Plays and the Roman Plays (Florence, KY, USA: Routledge, 1989)

[6] Morton S. Freeman. New Dictionary of Eponyms (Cary, NC, USA: Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 1997)

[7] Chris Rohmann and Jane Davidson Reid. The Oxford Guide to Classical Mythology in the Arts, 1300-1900s. (North Carolina: Oxford University Press, 1993)

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