In John William Waterhouse’s Circe (1892) there is no doubt that her power is linked to her seductive nature, while John Collier’s highly eroticized depiction of Lilith (1889) revels in the serpent coiling around her naked body. don’t be far from Rossetti’s portrayal.
Artists as diverse as Gustav Moreau, Gustav Klimt, and Edvard Munch all depicted the femme fatale, and there was rarely room for ambiguity—these women were dangerous temptresses.
Although most artists drew on biblical or mythical images, the Impressionists, as you might expect, given their daily life, brought the femme fatale into the present day.
The femme fatales of the modern age
Édouard Manet’s Nana (1877), which depicts a high-class prostitute undressed with her next client sitting on a sofa behind her, is widely believed to be inspired by Zola’s character of the same name. Nana, who first appeared in L’Assommoir before becoming the subject of her own eponymous novel in 1880, destroys every man who desires her before dying a horrible death of smallpox. The painting was refused entry to the Paris Salon, perhaps because the contemporary setting was a little too close to the bone.
Max Lieberman took a similarly contemporary approach in Samson and Delilah (1902), which turned the biblical story into a modern-day battle of the sexes. Delilah, triumphantly holding her love’s shorn hair above her head with one hand while crushing it to the bed with the other, is the epitome of the strong, sexually confident woman who so exasperated the men of the day.
The femme fatale was also a favorite subject of sculptors. We can see some particularly striking examples The Color of Anxiety: Race, Sexuality, and Disorder at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, which explores the intriguing premise that the increasing use of color in 19th-century sculpture was a means of highlighting Victorian anxieties.