Quite recently, I discussed the evolution of some femme fatales in art history. These women used their sexuality to directly or indirectly cause brutal death, and the moral of the danger of the female sex was clear. Today, I’m going to talk about a different group of women: the virgins, the morally upright, and the unattainable. The two former subsets of this group are, unfortunately, never the ones doing the killing (or at least not killing others). The latter kills, but not brutally.
My “gentler” artworks of women and death come mostly from the 19th century. Both morals at large and the perception of women changed over time, so while the view that women were inherently evil was fading, females were still oppressed by unrealistic standards. However, there is one example from the Northern Renaissance that is very important. Lucretia was a popular subject in the Renaissance and Baroque eras, and Lucas Cranach’s version happens to be my favorite. Lucretia was a woman in the Ancient Roman monarchy that was raped by a member of the royal family. Out of shame, she killed herself, sparking an uprising that allegedly helped bring about the Roman republic. It’s the first instance I know of the phenomenon of suicide and the compromised woman.
This theme gained more ground in the Pre Raphaelite movement in 19th century England. The portrayal of it was usually couched in stories or poetry, but I still think ideas about moral corruption lurk under the surface. Take John Everett Millais’s “Ophelia.” Shakespearean narratives were one of the most common Pre Raphaelite subjects, especially Shakespearean women. Ophelia was probably the star among these. Millais’s version is the only well known piece to show the heroine already dead. Interpretations differ as to whether Ophelia’s virtue was actually compromised by Hamlet, but we can all agree that her figurative purity was compromised.
The most interesting example of the self sacrificial virgin (or wannabe virgin) from this era is John William Waterhouse’s “Lady of Shalott.” The subject is taken from a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. It tells of a maiden who lives confined in a tower, only seeing the outside world through a mirror. If she ventures from her prison, she knows she will die. As you can tell from the painting, she does decide to leave. She is seduced, in a way, by the knights of Camelot, who she sees in her mirror. I see the story as a metaphor for the perfect Victorian woman: she is aware of the world but not corrupted by it. She knows to be corrupted is to die. The most brilliant part of the painting is the determined but haunted look on the lady’s face – the knowledge of impending death. Now, the Pre Raphaelites were a little more forgiving of women than Victorian society at large, so the painting can be interpreted as praising its subject’s courage.
Don’t worry, though. Men are still dropping dead in 19th century England. And let me point out the fascinating fact that the Judiths and Salomes of my last post were French, while my 19th century examples here are English. It would take a lot of cultural studies to figure that all out, so let’s just say my unintelligent theory is that the French have always been more embracing of female sexuality. But I digress. Men dying! As I said, the men who fell prey to desirable women died a lot more peacefully than John the Baptist and Holofernes. This is because the sexual experience of these men was a lot less, er, hands on. The women that caused their death were sexual objects to a point, but ultimately untouchable.
Waterhouse, who is on a roll today, paints this concept in “The Sirens.” Like almost everything painted in this era, it was a popular subject. The beautiful siren lures sailors in with her looks and voice, yet causes them to drown upon reaching her. The cautionary tale about chasing after beauty is still present, but not in the “ton of bricks” way that the sexuality of Judith and Salome were hitting viewers over the head with. Another excellent example are paintings of “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” a fatal beauty from a John Keats poem. She entices weary knights with sleep, care, and kind words, only to cause death in slumber.
I perhaps got a bit carried away with my (very amateur) survey of the consequences of female sexuality, but there you have it. Like almost any subject in art history, the way a theme comes out on the canvas is merely a reflection of the times. However, since the connections between morality and femininity are still relevant, it’s especially important to chart these trends. I’ll definitely have more of an eye out now for messages in contemporary work, and that is, after all, a major function of art history: getting us to think more critically about the world.