Femme Fatale in Art

Femme Fatale in Art by Gustave Moreau:

Oedipus and the Sphinx:
Oedipus

Moreau’s portrayal of Oedipus and the Sphinx displays a different scenario than the accepted story found in Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, with the sphinx serving as a dangerous femme fatale caricature. Rather than Oedipus unknowingly falling victim to his fate, Moreau depicts Oedipus standing, with a sphinx’s claws clutched to his chest (Paladilhe 95). The sphinx, with the body of a lion, wings of a bird, and head of a woman fits the animalistic characteristics of the deadly femme fatale. Moreau himself described the sphinx as “the earthly chimera, vile as all matter and attractive nonetheless—represented by this charming head and the wings of the ideal, but with the body of a monster, of the carnivore who rips apart and annihilates” (Heller 12). This furthers the idea that nineteenth century thinkers believed women’s bodies to be a threat, comparing their sexual appearance with that of a ‘monster,’ something dangerous that needed to be restrained.

The addition of the sphinx indicates that, rather than the fated series of events Sophocles recorded which led to Oedipus marrying his mother and his eventual downfall, Moreau believes Oedipus’ fate to be linked to the sexual nature of a woman. The strong, muscular figure of Oedipus stands tall, but bends at the neck to fixate his gaze on the sphinx’s eyes. As her claws dig into his chest, the inherent seductive nature of a woman draws him into actions he normally would not try. The sphinx appears only briefly in the story of Oedipus Rex, and therefore serves as a metaphoric representation of the sexual allure Oedipus encounters for Jocasta, his wife who is later revealed to be his mother. Not fate, as is commonly accepted, but the sexual temptation of a woman dictated Oedipus’ actions, and led him to his tragic downfall.

The Apparition:
Salome

Moreau depicts the biblical seductress of Salome in his painting, The Apparition, again making use of characters familiar and recognizable to his audience. Salome appears in the bible as the step daughter of King Herod, and the daughter of Herodias. At the time, Herod had imprisoned John the Baptist “for condemning his marriage to Herodias, the divorced wife of his half-brother” but “was afraid to have the popular prophet killed” (Editors). Salome danced in front of her step-father and his guests, and due to this, Herod promised to give her whatever she wanted. As an act of vengeance, her mother told her to ask for the “head of John the Baptist on a platter” (Editors). The gruesome result proved to be the shocking end to the life of the revered prophet.

The Apparition by Gustave Moreau captures the essence of Salome’s role as a femme fatale. Dressed provocatively, with her chest bare and ropes draped over her lower body, Salome stands unapologetically in the forefront of the painting. Though others stand around the rest of the painting, Moreau focuses the attention of the viewer on her. Salome’s hand reaches out and points at the dismembered head of John the Baptist, which floats in the air before her. Her seductive, powerful pose implies her understanding that she caused his death. Through her seduction of her step-father by dance, she asked for the death of John the Baptist. Moreau depicts the contrast between the evil of Salome as a femme fatale by emphasizing the purity of the saint before her. John the Baptist’s head is surrounded by a halo, which illuminates the space around him. Moreau makes clear that Salome’s actions were evil, because they led to the death of saint.

Helen at the Scaean Gate:
Helen

Helen of Sparta, who appears in Homers The Illiad, is the feature of Moreau’s Helen at the Scaean Gate. The legend describes Helen, the beauty of Sparta, as the cause of the mythical Trojan War between Sparta and Troy. Paris of Troy seduces her and takes her back to his city, away from Sparta and her husband Menelaus (Bell). This provokes the fabled war between the Greeks and the Trojans in which the city of Troy is completely destroyed.

Moreau’s interpretation of the events at Troy appears in his painting of Helen at the Scaean Gate. The Scaean Gate is the entrance to the city of Troy (Illiad). The image shows Helen as a figure draped in black, standing in front of the gates to a war ravaged city. In The Illiad, Trojan elders remark “that the Trojans and well-armed Achaeans have endured great suffering a long time… over such a woman—just like a goddess, immortal, awe-inspiring. She’s beautiful. But nonetheless… let her not stay here, a blight on us, our children” (Gill). The black of Helen’s dress portrays this ‘blight,’ and her role as a femme fatale. Her seduction of Paris and abandonment of her Greek husband led to such a drawn out and tragic war. By placing her faceless figure in front of the gates of Troy, Moreau emphasizes that the sexual appeal of her body caused such ruin. Helen became the epitome of a dangerous femme fatale because she caused the death of a whole civilization.

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