photo of man looking at sophisticated woman

Femme fatale: The images that reveal male fears – BBC Culture

Three new exhibitions explore how the femme fatale in art reflects evolving anxieties, writes Cath Pound.

By Cath Pound, 31st January 2023

(Image credit: Hamburger Kunsthalle, Photo: Elke Walford)

The figure of the femme fatale is one of the defining literary and artistic motifs of the 19th and early 20th Centuries.

Artists were drawn to historical archetypes of female seduction such as Cleopatra or Lucretia Borgia, characters from Old Testament stories including Salome, Judith and Delilah, or mythical figures such as Circe, Helen of Troy and Medea.

Others were conjured from their male author’s imagination – Prosper Mérimée’s Carmen, Émile Zola’s Nana and Frank Wedekind’s Lulu being some of the most notable.

Her emergence is frequently seen as a response to anxieties arising from profound social change as women pushed for greater economic, political and educational rights, challenging the established patriarchal order.

Middle-class women who sought education were, according to the British psychiatrist Henry Maudsley, likely to damage their reproductive organs, turning them into monstrosities who threatened the survival of the human race. Fear of contagious diseases such as syphilis was another factor, with working-class prostitutes being seen as contemporary femmes fatales who could lure their clients to their doom.

Source: Femme fatale: The images that reveal male fears – BBC Culture