Publication Date


Document Type


First Advisor

Beard, Dorathea K.

Degree Name

M.A. (Master of Arts)

Legacy Department

Department of Art


Femmes fatales in art; Symbolism in art; Art; Modern--20th century; Art; Modern--19th century


This study examines the Symbolist phenomenon of the femme fatale—an image of women that became popular throughout the Western world during the latter decades of the nineteenth century. The theme is frequently depicted through powerfully erotic and exotic images, as poets and painters of the fin-de-siecle era discovered past examples of the destructive capabilities of women. Developed first in a literary form, before progressing and influencing the visual arts, the femme fatale is a contradictory compound of seductiveness, beauty, narcissism, independence, sterility and death. The theme is characteristic of the Aesthetics, Decadents and Symbolists—all of whom shared the attitude of women as a source of evil and destruction. Elevated to an unnatural status of beauty and ailing vulnerability, women of the period became a source of unprecedented intrigue and fear. For the primary artists mentioned in the study (Gustave Moreau, Aubrey Beardsley and Edvard Munch), however, they also became a private obsession. By the end of the century, through the extended imitation of their forms by others and the medium of design, satire and fashion, the femme fatale ultimately became a stereotype. In individual ways, each of the artists discussed led dysfunctional and unconventional lives. As their thoughts and interests turned inward, they withdrew from reality and became preoccupied with their fantasies. Their backgrounds are examined independently and collectively with regard to their attitudes toward life, sexuality and women, revealing a portrait of three major artists who helped to characterize the Symbolist movement. The comments of art historians and critics with regard to the iconography of the femme fatale are evaluated in terms of the works themselves and my own observations. The public’s reaction to the movement is also examined (both in terms of its popularity and survival), as well as a psychological analysis of the repressive Victorian society. A possible theory concerning the underlying fascination for femmes fatales, which I propose was a result of the emergence of the political and social emancipation of women, is also considered.


Includes bibliographical references (pages 120-127)


vi, 127 pages




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