The Femme Fatale in Art History

Morally ambiguous, sexy and mysterious, available and yet, is she hiding something? Cue sultry music. The Femme Fatale as the archetype of dangerous womanhood has been in the psyche of popular culture ever since women’s slow rise towards emancipation began in the 19th century. She posed a crisis to masculinity and therefore was desired but never trusted. We all know Sharon Stone’s deadly but magnetic character from Basic Instinct, and we all love to hate Cersei Lannister from Game of Thrones, but what about the femme fatale in art and history? The Public House of Art explores.

Chennakeshava Temple, Belur. Mohini. 1116.

Mohini is the only female avatar of the Hindu God Vishnu, and was created in order to attract and lure demons to herself, and eventually to their doom. She was commonly portrayed as an enchantress who tricks the lovers she encountered, but nevertheless is worshipped in India even today with temples and shrines dedicated to her especially in the West of the country. Namaste Mohini.

Pierre Bonnaud. Salomé. c. 1900.

Salome in Biblical scripture is thought to have lived in the first century after Christ. She is best known for demanding and receiving the head of John the Baptist, then dancing in front of her father, Herod with the head on a platter. Not surprisingly this image has been depicted hundreds if not thousands of times by Christian artists through the centuries, they can’t seem to get enough of the dangerous femme fatale.

Edvard Munch. Madonna. 1895-1902.

Werner Hofmann once said this painting was a "strange devotional picture glorifying decadent love. The cult of the strong woman who reduces man to subjection gives the figure of woman monumental proportions, but it also makes a demon of her." Painted by the celebrated yet dark and moody Edvard Munch around 1895, ‘Madonna’ successfully intersects religion, sex, and danger all in one luscious image.

Thomas Thijssen. Madame de Bovary. 2017. Photography. Edition of 30.

Madame de Bovary, depicted here by The Public House of Art’s very own Thomas Thijssen, is best known as the beautiful adulteress who lived promiscuously and beyond her means in order to escape the trudges of daily provincial life in Northern France. This story, written in the mid-19th century has had a love and hate relationship with the public; first banned for obscenity - Strong sexual women? No thank you - then winning in trial and eventually becoming notorious and a classic in French literature - strong sexual women? Why the hell not!

Take a sneak peak of our new collection ‘The Devil Inside Me’ and explore the many other femme fatales our artists depicted in the quest to understand the new meaning of ‘temptation’.




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