Art & Photography / In Pictures

Dangerous Women

A celebration of art history's most formidable women

Sleep, Gustave Courbet, 1866, Petit Palais–Musée des Beaux-A
Sleep, Gustave Courbet, 1866, Petit Palais–Musée des Beaux-A © Photo Josse/Leemage from Dangerous Women: The Perils of Muses and Femmes Fatales by Laure Adler and Élisa Lécosse (Paris: Flammarion, 2010).

Throughout history, women have been objects of love, fascination and fright. For centuries, the world has cast an ambivalent gaze upon them, simultaneously venerating and mistrusting them, and men have feared the fair sex and its might when it comes to love and desire. For, when in love, a woman grows strong, bewitching, mysterious. By capturing and seducing a man, she has the power to disturb the so-called natural imbalance of the sexes and to make him her equal or even her slave, thus becoming a danger to others and herself alike. In a history that has been told and controlled by men for too long, women have often assumed the roles of destroyers, temptresses and vamps (from Eve to Pandora to Yoko Ono), even though their own views on femininity state otherwise. As Louise Bourgeois once put it, “it’s about defining my low self-esteem. You realise how difficult it is to make it. The desire to please is the motivation and there are no rules”. As for feminine love, Margerite Duras defined it as “a sense of abduction, rapture, voiding of the self”. Dangerous Women, a new book published by Flammarion, finally confronts the different views of men and women towards muses and femmes fatales through the analysis made by two women – a writer specialising in feminism and an art historian – of mythological feminine characters portrayed by men. To celebrate the release of the book, AnOther invited authors, Laure Adler and Élisa Lécosse, to tell us about their favourite paintings of women and the quest for the eternal feminine.

Danäe is an ambiguous figure par excellence, the embodiment of both virtue and sexuality, chastity and depravity. She was locked up by her father in a bronze tower because an oracle predicted that he would be killed by his own grandson. Jupiter, however, turned himself into a shower of gold, entered the prison, and in this form performed coitus with the young woman. In this picture, Danäe is shown offering herself to Jupiter. Still, everything in it is indicative of sensuality and love.

At a banquet organised for her birthday, her uncle, Herod Antipas, swears he will give Salome whatever she desires if only she will dance for him. She asks for the head of Saint John the Baptist. In Gustave Moreau’s interpretation of the myth, pleasure mixes inextricably with pain, as the extreme refinement of the ornaments and the gentleness of Salome’s face form a powerful contrast with the cruelty of her actions.

Abandoned and betrayed by her husband Jason, who has fallen for another woman, Medea is prey to uncontrollable jealousy, and in a rage she slaughters the children she had by Jason. In Delacroix’s picture, the dark, earthy backdrop of the cave evokes brutality and wicked passions, as do Medea’s thick black locks and the red and brown colours of her robe.

"Abandoned and betrayed by her husband Jason, Medea is prey to uncontrollable jealousy, and in a rage she slaughters her children."

Viviane, the Lady of the Lake, pronounces a magic spell that plunges Merlin into a deep sleep. Having succumbed to the allurements of the fairy, Merlin agrees to teach her all his knowledge of the arcane. In the painting, the experience of enchantment is illustrated by sinuously swirling curves. The snakes in the fairy’s hair remind one of the mythological figure of Medusa, while Merlin, immobilized and defenseless, is a victim of feminine wiles.

In the Bible, Judith is presented as an example of courage and daring: she used her beauty to slaughter a tyrant and save her people. But Judith is also the incarnation of seduction, a fatal trap for any man beguiled by her charms. For artist Artemisia Gentileschi, the theme possessed a personal resonance though: in the painting, the heroine wears a bracelet with medallions representing the goddess of chastity and hunting, Artemis, whose name echoes Artemisia. The artist, who was raped at a young age, is attempting to cast out the violence of which she was a helpless victim.

Dangerous Women is out now, published by Flammarion.

Text by Marta Represa

Marta Represa is a freelance writer specializing in fashion, art, photography and culture.