Imagine this: A nubile dancer named Salome struts before a lustful king. She wields her bejeweled half-dressed body like a weapon. Her desire? To gain the head of John the Baptist, which floats before her as a glowing apparition.
Imagine also this: A strong-jawed sphinx bearing the head of a woman and the spotted body of a leopard. Her eyes are slits of ecstatic pleasure as her claws stretch for a rather androgynous-looking bare-chested male. Will she embrace him? Or eat him?
Finally, this: A bare-breasted Madonna floats in a sea of red and black, appearing more vampiric than maternal. In one corner, a fetus cowers as though fearing her destructive might.
All three of these women appear in paintings that herald from the Age of Decadence. All three appear like something from a dream … or a nightmare. In contrast to the life-bringing triple goddess archetypes of maiden, mother, and crone, the feminine archetypes presented in these works of art serve up damnation and death, their main victims men too weak to resist their siren allure. In them, the aesthetics of decadence turns its gaze from the cycle of life toward oblivion through eroticism. After all, there is no good or evil, only sensation.
These women are beauty. They are danger. They are all-powerful with hypnotic eyes and squared jaws—all the better to sever your carotid vein in a moment of passion. Even more terrifying: They are representatives of the New Woman, a feminist archetype first described in 1894 by writer Sarah Grand in reaction to her unhappy marriage. The New Woman movement reflected the suffragettes in that it encouraged women to yearn for independence, equality between the sexes, and other scandalous notions that triggered male anxieties.
These femme fatales arrive from a different stock than the languid medieval maidens of Pre-Raphaelite art, whose allure was too often tied to their passivity: Think of the Lady of Shalott on her barge, Marianna in her moated grange, Sleeping Beauty surrounded by thorny roses. Edward Burne-Jones’s famed 1874 description of a picture as “a beautiful romantic dream of something that never was, never will—in a light better than any light that ever shone, in a land no one can define or remember, only desire” encapsulates the yearning Romanticism of this earlier era. Interestingly, Burne-Jones’s son Philip, who followed his father to become an artist himself, created one of the most indelible images of destructive femininity.
“The Vampire,” his 1897 painting, depicts a female creature of the night reclining over her deceased male victim across a rumpled bed. The composition suggests they’ve wrestled beneath the sheets—and she’s emerged the victor. Though the vampire’s coy face bears the dark eyes and strong jawline reminiscent of an Edward Burne-Jones princess, her expression in Philip’s painting reveals an erotic satisfaction never depicted in his father’s art. The implication is clear: Sex equals death. Philip’s painting was influential enough to have inspired Rudyard Kipling, a distant relative of the Burne-Jones family, to pen a poem also entitled “The Vampire”:
Oh, the years we waste and the tears we waste
And the work of our head and hand
Belong to the woman who did not know
(And now we know that she never could know)
The first appearance of a vampire in published literature is ascribed to Dr. John Polidori’s The Vampyre, a narrative inspired by the author’s obsession with his most famous patient, Lord Byron. Initially Byron was incorrectly credited as author. Polidori’s vampire story was written as a result of the infamous 1816 Villa Diodati ghost-story challenge, which more famously led to the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Polidori’s vampire resembles Lord Byron himself: mysterious, alluring, sexually depraved. However, in 1836, Théophile Gautier would write of a very different type of vampire.
Gautier’s La Morte amoureuse—“The Dead Woman in Love”—is better known in English under the title of “Clarimonde,” which also serves as the name of the mysterious woman at the center of his short story. Before becoming a vampire, Clarimonde is a courtesan who meets her death at the close of an “infernally splendid” orgy that lasted eight days and nights. Gautier writes, “There have always been very strange stories told of this Clarimonde, and all her lovers came to a violent or miserable end. They used to say that she was a ghoul, a female vampire; but I believe she was none other than Beelzebub himself.”
And did not understand!
The main plot of “Clarimonde” involves a priest named Romuald falling desperately in love with Clarimonde on the day of his ordination. Unaware of her unnatural origins, Romuald’s obsession with Clarimonde reaches a high point when he allows her to drink blood from his cut finger. Though Romuald realizes at this point that his beloved is a vampire, he’s unable to turn away. Alas, Clarimonde is vanquished forever when another priest pours holy water on her undead body; Romuald yearns for his unholy love for the remainder of his life.
As the 19th century rolled on, the vampire appeared as agent of seductive danger in other published works. Irish author Sheridan Le Fanu’s 1872 novella Carmilla presents a female vampire who prefers the sexual and sanguinary attentions of women. (After all, what’s more threatening to a man than a woman who doesn’t desire him?) Twenty-five years later, Bram Stoker’s Dracula presents the titular character’s brides—women “turned” by the count into vampires—as depraved monsters eager to drain the blood of an innocent child.
Bram Dijkstra’s book Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture posits that by 1900 the female vampire “had come to represent woman as the personification of everything negative that linked sex, ownership, and money.” In other words, all the unwelcome qualities that the New Woman suggested to a nervous patriarchal society—an Eternal Feminine of the Damned, if you will.
Whether this Eternal Feminine of the Damned is represented in the unclad form of Salome dancing for the head of John the Baptist, a seductively beclawed sphinx, or Clarimonde lapping blood from her lover’s fingers, her singular goal remains the same: to lure you into exchanging your life for a moment of ecstasy. Will you succumb?