Arthur Hughes’s La Belle Dame sans merci and the femme fatale

Arthur Hughes’s La Belle Dame sans merci (fig. 1) is a little known pre-Raphaelite painting. It did not appear in either of the pre-Raphaelite exhibitions in Australia.1 Pre-Raphaelite Art, State Art Galleries of Australia, 1962 and The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle in the National Gallery of Victoria, 1978. Indeed the painting has merited only one reference in modern pre-Raphaelite literature, in an article on Hughes by Robin Gibson. He does not find the painting entirely successful, commenting on ‘the awkwardness of the composition and the rather ailing lady’.2 Robin Gibson/Arthur Hughes: Arthurian and Related Subjects of the Early 1860’s’, Burlington Magazine 112, July 1970, p. 452. Hughes on the other hand thought the painting contained some of his best work3 ibid., p. 455., but while it ‘obtained the highest praise from artists’, it found ‘no place at the Academy’.4 Athenaeum, no. 1855, 16 May 1863, p. 655. The picture was shown with some other rejected works at the Cosmopolitan Club in Berkeley Square.5 Athenaeum, no. 1857, 30 May 1863, p. 720. Both these references are cited in Robin Gibson 1970, p. 455. La Belle Dame sans merci had been commissioned by Thomas Plint, a major pre-Raphaelite patron, although he died before the picture was completed. At his decease sale the painting fetched only £30 sterling, in contrast to the original purchase price of £250.6 Rossetti to F. M. Brown, 26 June 1865, W. M. Rossetti, Rossetti Papers 1862–1870, London, 1903, pp. 138–9. It is true that prices at this sale were generally depressed (see ibid.), but the fall in La Belle Dame sans merci was particularly drastic. Interestingly enough The knight in the sun, a picture in a similar vein, achieved one of the highest prices in the sale – £210 (Gibson 1970, p. 452). 

It would appear from the foregoing that La Belle Dame sans merci was not and is not considered to be completely successful. Its inadequacies, however, cannot be simply attributed to the artist’s technical difficulties with composition and the belle dame’s body as pointed out by Gibson. Rather, these difficulties arise out of the problems of constructing a pictorial narrative of feminine seductiveness in 1863. In the first place there was the problem of conceptualising and visually representing feminine power and active sexuality in the mid 19th century when the dominant ideal was of the pure, asexual and dependent woman, and her opposite – the fallen woman – was perceived as sinful rather than evil. In the second place, there were the disturbing implications of such a subject for its masculine audience, intent on defining and controlling women’s sexuality. 

The fact that Hughes’s La Belle Dame sans merci is ‘less than successful’ is all the more reason for its being an interesting painting, the analysis of which is of some importance in giving us an insight into that most anxiety-ridden and problematic dimension of Victorian consciousness – sex and sexuality. Before analysing the painting, however, I want to consider Hughes’s choice of subject in relation to the pre-Raphaelite interest in Keats and to the rise of the femme fatale in 19th century art and literature.  

Keats, who died in 1821, was generally neglected by critics and the reading public until the late 1840s.7 On the pre-Raphaelites and Keats, see George H. Ford, Keats and the Victorians, New Haven, 1944. There was not a single reprint of his poems until 1840 and his first biography by Richard Monckton Milnes was not published until 1848. Keats’s rise to fame is a phenomenon of the second half of the 19th century. The pre-Raphaelites were among the earliest discoverers of Keats, although they were by no means the first – Browning, for example, was reading Keats as early as 1826, Tennyson and his associates were enjoying Keats before Rossetti and Holman Hunt found him in the mid 1840s. 

Keats was instrumental in bringing Holman Hunt and Rossetti together, when Rossetti discovered Hunt’s painting from The eve of St Agnes on the walls of the Royal Academy in 1848.8 William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols, London, 1905, vol. I, pp. 105–6. The title of the painting, which is in the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, is The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry ‘The Eve of St Agnes’.Hunt subsequently succeeded in converting the initially unreceptive Millais.9 ibid., pp. 80, 103–4. Keats was awarded two stars in the pre-Raphaelite list of immortals, drawn up in 1848, one star below ‘The Author of Job’ and Shakespeare, and on a par with, among others, Homer, Chaucer, Dante and Browning.10 ibid., p. 159. 

The attraction of Keats’s poetry was without a doubt the ‘Pre-Raphaelite’ precision of its ‘word-pictures’. The poems that most appealed and which the artists drew upon for subject matter were those in which ‘word-pictures’ were incorporated into romantic narratives of love and death, set in the Middle Ages – The eve of St AgnesLorenzo and Isabella, and La Belle Dame sans merci. Millais and Hunt confined themselves to the first two poems, Hunt characteristically investing his painting from The eve of St Agnes with moral significance as a story of the ‘sacredness of honest responsible love and the weakness of proud intemperance’.11 ibid., p. 85. Millais exhibited his Lorenzo and Isabella (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) in 1849, and the two of them began working on a series of illustrations from that ‘magnificent poem’.12 ibid., p. 104. 

Rossetti, however, whose images represent most fully the complexities and suppressed anxieties of Victorian ideas of women, was attracted to La Belle Dame sans merci which he thought ‘wondrous’13 Virginia M. Allen, ‘The Femme Fatale: A Study of the Early Development of the Concept in Mid-Nineteenth Century Poetry and Painting’, Ph. D. dissertation, Boston University, 1979, p. 160., and he made a drawing from the poem in 1855 (fig. 2). Arthur Hughes, a close associate of the Brotherhood from the time of his discovery of The Germ in 1850, was also attracted to Keatsian subjects. His triptych, The eve of St Agnes (Tate Gallery, London), was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1856, and a year earlier he, like Rossetti, had made a drawing from La Belle Dame sans merci (fig. 3).14 The drawing is not dated, but according to Robin Gibson 1970, p. 455, it is ‘traditionally’ dated to 1855. 


Keats’s ballad tells the story of a knight’s enthralment by a ‘faery child’ which condemns him to wander forever, lost to the world. First published in 1820 the poem is an early example of the 19th century fascination with the femme fatale which was to culminate in a veritable invasion of European culture by fatal women in the last two decades of the 19th century – in literature, the visual arts, painting, fashion, design and advertising. There were evil women from history, the Bible, mythology, folklore and literature – such as Cleopatra, Lucrezia Borgia, Lilith, Salome and Lamia. There were witches and sorceresses, like the Medusa, Circe, Nimüe and Morgan-le-Fay. And there were demonic creatures, half-human, half-animal, like the sphinx, sirens, mermaids, harpies and vampires. Cruel, lustful and evil these femmes fatales lured men to their doom and destruction through their beauty, enchantments and erotic power (figs 4, 5, 6).15 On the femme fatale, see Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, 2nd edn, London, 1951; R. Hoffman Hays, The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil, London, 1966; Patrick Bade, Femme Fatale: Images of Evil and Fascinating Women, London, 1978 and Virginia Allen 1979. 

In English art the femme fatale was very rare indeed until the 1850s and her appearance continued to be infrequent until around the 1870s. Even during her heyday the femme fatale was not as over-whelming a presence in English art, either in terms of numbers or malevolent power, as she was on the Continent. Rossetti, together with Gustave Moreau, has been considered the major contributor to the iconography of the femme fatale, with his images of brooding, sensuous, self-absorbed women who both attract and intimidate. Rossetti’s women are in fact very ambiguous, being engaged in complex inter-relationships of love and death, sensuous and spiritual beauty, purity and evil. Although he painted very few femmes fatales as such, his women are sufficiently compelling to be incorporated into the iconography of the fatal woman. Of these, the most formidable is undoubtedly Astarte Syriaca, 1877 (City of Manchester Art Galleries). Among the earliest was Lady Lilith, 1868, a painting of a modern Lilith (fig. 7).16 See Virginia M. Allen, “One Strangling Golden Hair”: Rossetti’s “Lady Lilith”, Art Bulletin 66, June 1984, pp. 285–94, and Sarah Phelps Smith, ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Lady Lilith” and the “Language of Flowers’”, Arts Magazine 53, February 1979, pp. 142–5. Lilith was Adam’s legendary first wife who refused to be subordinate, consorted with demons and who, according to one legend, was one of the four wives of Satan. The painting was accompanied by a sonnet, and the central idea of the ‘picture-sonnet’ was in Rossetti’s words ‘the perilous principle in the world being female from the first’.17 Quoted Virginia Allen 1984, p. 286. 

Arthur Hughes’s La Belle Dame sans merci was painted five years before Lady Lilith, and therefore just precedes the emergence of the fully-fledged fatal woman. How then does the painting engage with its subject? Hughes’s painting follows his earlier sketches (figs 3, 8) and Rossetti’s drawing (fig. 2) in illustrating the sixth stanza of the ballad: 

I set her on my pacing steed, 

And nothing else saw all day long; 

For sidelong would she bend, and sing 

A faery’s song. 

Hughes’s image refers to the first line in particular. At the same time the painting attempts to go beyond this single moment by the suggestion of the aftermath of the knight’s encounter with the lady. Like all Victorian narrative paintings La Belle Dame sans merci aspires to the condition of cinema, seeking to extend the temporal dimensions of the single image. Thus the picture introduces the pale kings, princes and warriors who subsequently visit the knight in a dream and warn him of this thraldom to the belle dame

This conflation of different moments leads to curious results with regard to place, season and weather. In the poem the knight meets the lady in the ‘mead’, and their activities suggest that this took place in summer. But at the end he awakens to find himself on ‘the cold hill’s side’, and is discovered by the narrator loitering by a lake from which ‘the sedge has wither’d’. In the painting however, instead of the mead we find the cold hill-side (blown by a gale-like wind not mentioned in the poem) and the lake – referring to moments that come after the meeting with the lady. There are further signs of autumn, the season in which these later events occur, in the dead oak leaves and the scantily-clad tree behind the knight. On the other hand, there is an overall impression of summer lushness and fertility in the blooming briar roses, the red and white poppies and the dense green mat of grasses and reeds. 

These improbabilities arise in part from Hughes’s attempt to deal with different times and seasons in the one image, but they also arise from his use of natural symbolism. The pre-Raphaelites made particular use of natural symbols both as a means of gaining temporality and as a way of investing the material objects they so patiently recorded with a significance beyond what was merely visible. Thus the presence of briar roses and poppies brings together symbols of love, sleep and death. The belle dame holds a red poppy in her hand, doubly symbolic because it is withered, associating her with the sleep she lulls the knight into and the living death to which he awakens. 

Other elements of nature may be seen to function symbolically. It is possible that the two trees on the left (borrowed respectively from Hughes’s earlier paintings, The long engagement, 1859 and The knight in the sun, 1860 (fig. 9)) have a symbolic function, the tree on the left standing for masculine power and strength and the slight bending tree on the right standing for feminine vulnerability and weakness. Therefore the continuation of the line of the second tree down through the strap of the knight’s shield associates the knight with the tree and suggests that in allowing himself to be tempted by the belle dame he is in danger of emasculation, of becoming vulnerable and powerless. 

Less speculative is the symbolic association between the time of the day – twilight (another instance of artistic licence, since times of day are not mentioned in the poem) and the knight’s living death. La Belle Dame sans merci is one in a long line of pre-Raphaelite sunset/twilight paintings associating death with the end of the day, first introduced in Millais’s Autumn leaves, 1856 (City of Manchester Art Galleries) and continued through paintings like Millais’s The vale of rest, 1858 (Tate Gallery), Henry Wallis’s The stone breaker, 1857 (Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery), and Hughes’s own The knight in the sun

About the figures themselves are signs and symbols not found in the poem, referring to the story and the knight’s fate. His surcoat bears the heraldic arms of a hand crushing a serpent; yet he is oblivious of the serpents entwined around the neck of the belle dame, referring back ultimately to Eve and her temptation. The knight is removing his shield, and his sword lies across the lap of the belle dame. He has made himself vulnerable by these actions. The placement of the sword, the symbol of his manhood, refers also to his sexual enslavement and loss of virility.    

But there is a further significance to the knight’s taking off his shield and giving up his sword, to be understood within the context of the Victorian interest in Arthurian legend and chivalric ideals. Hughes’s own interest in the story of King Arthur arose out of his involvement with Rossetti, Morris and other friends in the decoration of the Oxford Union with murals depicting Arthurian subjects, a project undertaken with much enthusiasm and no technical knowledge in 1857. His interest was further stimulated by the publication of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King in 1859.18 Gibson 1970, p. 451. 

In 1860 Hughes exhibited his Arthurian The knight in the sun at the Royal Academy: La Belle Dame sans merci can be seen as a companion to this work. Thomas Plint, who commissioned La Belle sans merci, had been the purchaser of the earlier work. Both were large paintings with knightly themes and similar sunset/twilight settings. The knight in the sun illustrates the legend of a knight who, at the end of a Christian life, was carried out of his castle to see the setting sun whose badge he wore.19 ibid., p. 452. 

The knight in the sun is thus a painting of a virtuous knight while the knight in La Belle Dame sans merci has succumbed to temptation and is on the point of losing his chastity, which according to the chivalric code he was pledged to keep. He is akin to Sir Lancelot who was denied access to the Holy Grael because of his sin with Guinevere. 

The differences between the virtuous and the sinful knight are clearly indicated by the ways in which their shields and swords, their attributes of knighthood, are being treated. In The knight in the sun they are reverently carried by a page, but in La Belle Dame sans merci these arms for the defence of good and the destruction of evil (symbolised by the snake) have been recklessly abandoned. 

In Keats’s poem there is no mention of snakes, a sword or shield. What these additions indicate is the carry over of Hughes’s Arthurian interests into the poem, which is thus passed through the filter of Victorian ideas about medieval chivalry. As a consequence Hughes’s knight is ‘fallen’ as well as enthralled, and the sword across the belle dame’s lap symbolises both his fall from grace and his sexual enslavement. The painting is thus a site for the meeting of discourses on chivalry and the femme fatale. But the meeting is an ambiguous one and allows an alternative reading of the painting which inverts the relationship between the femme fatale and the knight. 

The spectator’s reading of the painting as a representation of a fallen and enthralled knight is dependent on a knowledge of Keats’s poem and a correct decoding of the signs and symbols in the painting. Without these aids the painting lends itself to a very different reading. In terms of the painting’s overt narrative the knight might be succumbing to the wiles of the ‘faery’s child’, but if we focus on the visual construction of the two figures and their relationship the very opposite meaning emerges. 

To begin with, the lady might well have the fetishised flowing locks of the femme fatale, serpents round her neck, the knight’s sword across her lap; yet, in no way does she suggest demonic power. Even if we accept Virginia Allen’s argument that Keats’s ‘faery’s child’ is not a full-blown femme fatale20 Virginia Allen 1979, pp. 83, 88., it is still fair to expect in the painting some indication of the demonic wiles described in the poem. The knight is, after all, seduced by her wild eyes, her sweet moan, her faery’s song, and so on. 

There is no suggestion at all that the belle dame’s attraction is in any way sexual. Indeed the painting works to deny her attributes of sex. Although she wears a diaphanous bodice and her arms are bared, the shape of her breasts is concealed, and the area of her genitals is covered by her right arm. Indeed, the whole torso collapses in upon itself. Hughes’s belle dame is as bodiless as the women in early pre-Raphaelite drawings and paintings, who derive from the artists’ perception of early Italian painting and their association of this painting with purity and spirituality through the denial of the fleshly. Therefore, there is an ironic appropriateness in Robin Gibson’s assigning of Queen Elizabeth in James Collinson’s The Renunciation of Queen Elizabeth of Hungary, 1850–51, as a source for Hughes’s belle dame (fig. 10.), since Queen Elizabeth maintained her chastity in marriage then put aside her crown and renounced the world for Christ.21 Gibson 1970, p. 455.

The belle dame inclines her head and body towards the knight. Her hands are loosely clasped, but the bracelets around her wrists, which the knight made for her in the fifth stanza of the poem, are like handcuffs binding her wrists together. There might be, as one contemporary reviewer claimed, ‘exquisite poetry’ in her head22 Athenaeum, no. 1857, 30 May 1863, p. 720., but poetic heads are not one of the standard features of the femme fatale. Hughes’s lady has none of the voracity and power of the true femme fatale. Her gaze is one of wistful pleading. She is the embodiment of feminine helplessness. The knight, on the other hand, is the embodiment of manliness. He stands firmly on the ground. His large hands grasp the leather band of the shield; his jaw is square and determined and his look is one of mastery.  

What the figures represent is the polarity of masculinity and femininity in Victorian constructions of gender, with the association of the masculine with strength and power and the feminine with weakness and dependence. As a result, it is as easy to read the painting as the rescue of a damsel in distress by a chivalrous knight as that of a knight’s succumbing to the wiles of a femme fatale. 

Why is Hughes’s belle dame such an ineffectual figure? It might be argued that Hughes’s forte was not destructive but distressed damsels, witness his Ophelia, 1852 (Manchester City Art Gallery), April love, 1855 (Tate Gallery), or Fair Rosamund, 1854 (National Gallery of Victoria). It might further be argued that as a man noted for his tender and gentle nature he was incapable of conceptualising a creature so formidable as a femme fatale. But nowadays we know better than to associate the personality of an artist with the character of his/her art.23 On this point, see especially Griselda Pollock, ‘Artists, Mythologies and Media Genius, Madness and Art History’, Screeen 21, 1980, pp. 57–96. 

It is necessary to go beyond Hughes’s individual psyche to find answers to the problem of his La Belle Dame sans merci. For a start it would be useful to look at other images of the femme fatale in the 1850s and early 1860s – of which there are very few. Virginia Allen cites Rossetti’s La Belle Dame sans merci as presaging the true femme fatale of the last decades of the century (fig.2).24 Virginia Allen 1979, p. 174. The drawing introduces the motif of the lock of hair entwined around the knight’s neck as a symbol of his sexual enslavement (not present in the poem). Allen also refers to the lady’s full and exposed throat, parted lips and languishing expression. But Rossetti’s belle dame is a much more ambiguous figure. The body is not sexualised in any way, and there is nothing erotic in her face and expression. The belle dame leans away from the knight, and the image might as well be one of masculine abduction as of feminine seduction. 

Other pre-Raphaelite examples present similar difficulties. Burne-Jones’s Merlin and Nimüe, 1861 (fig. 11), an Arthurian subject, is about the old wizard’s falling victim to a spell cast by his pupil Nimüe. But there is no suggestion of power or fatal attraction in Burne-Jones’s bunchy and vacant-faced figure. 

The other area in which images of the femme fatale are to be found is academic history painting; but she is as problematic here as she is in pre-Raphaelite paintings. Frederic Leighton’s The fisherman and the Syren, c. 1856–58 (fig. 12) is his sole venture into this kind of subject.25 On this and other Victorian paintings of sirens, see Lynda Nead, ‘Woman as Temptress: The Siren and the Mermaid in Victorian Painting’, Leeds Art Calendar, vol. 91, 1982, pp. 5–20. A nude femme fatale is potentially more threatening than a clothed one, since the connection of her power with sexuality is visually more explicit. Yet Leighton’s siren is not at all disturbing. In the first place she is sexually sanitised – as well as legitimated as a nude – through her location within the category of high art with its idealised figures. Within such a location the attractions of the nude were presented as aesthetic, moral, even spiritual. In the second place the siren’s head is turned away from the (male) spectator who can thus safely possess and enjoy her body with his gaze. Finally she clings to the fisherman in such a way as to suggest feminine dependence, not feminine power. The ineffectuality of these femmes fatales is all the more striking when they are compared with later versions of similar subjects (figs 4, 5, 6). These later representations are much more menacing. 

The reason for this can only be dealt with superficially here as it is beyond the scope of this article. Modern literature on the femme fatale associates this particularly virulent outburst of men’s age-old fear of women with the development of the New Woman and of feminism in the late 1860s. For example, the first petition for women’s suffrage was presented to the House of Commons by John Stuart Mill in 1867. The connection between the femme fatale, feminism and the New Woman was made by at least one contemporary observer who, in 1869, stated that Lilith was ‘the first strong-minded woman and the original advocate of women’s rights’.26 Quoted Virginia Allen 1984, p. 292. 

By the 1870s Victorian images of women were beginning to shift, in response to the changing circumstances of women, part of the great transformations in Victorian society in the last quarter of the 19th century. 

The image of the new woman which accompanied this shift was, in its positive form that of a more mature, less innocent female who accepted a larger social responsibility to purify the conditions and conduct of all. At the same time there emerged a negative view, fed by popular fears of social change, which singled out the new woman as selfish, luxury-conscious and sexually promiscuous.27 Mary S. Hartman, Victorian Murderesses, New York, 1977, p. 262.

The idea of the New Woman also included women who were actively in control of their own lives, including their sexual destiny. Their capacity for evil was perceived as much the greater because of this. To observers fearful of these social changes the New Woman was a symptom of the decay of civilisation. She threatened the breakdown of that sharp gender division, so strenuously maintained in the middle decades of the century, and to invert the power relationship between the masculine and the feminine.28 On the association of the New Woman with decadence, in fiction and literary criticism, see Linda Dowling, ‘The Decadent and the New Woman in the 1890’s’, Nineteenth Century Fiction 33, March 1979, pp. 34–53. It was in the context of these changes and the anxieties they engendered that the femme fatale in her mature form as an actively evil and sexually empowered figure could come into her own. 

At the same time it would be a mistake to forget that the femme fatale is a creation by men for men. And if she expresses men’s fears and anxieties she equally expresses ‘man’s continued power of woman and our beliefs about her’.29 Joanna Frueh, ‘Re-vamping the Vamp’, Arts Magazine 57, October 1982, p. 99. Furthermore, her power can only destroy, it cannot create, and the fatal woman is as much trapped as her victim. Under these circumstances it is not at all surprising that, during a woman’s suffrage demonstration in Manchester in 1913, women should throw stones at the most threatening of Rossetti’s femmes fatales, his Astarte Syriaca.30 Virginia Allen 1984, p. 293.    

Femme fatales, as we have seen, did exist before the 1870s. But their existence was much more problematic. In the middle decades of the 19th century the dominant stereotype of women, constructed within the framework of Victorian domestic ideology, was as the Angel in the House.31 On Victorian domestic ideology, see W. E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind 1850–1870, New Haven and London, 1957, ch. 13 and Catherine Hall, ‘The early Formation of Victorian Domestic Ideology’, in Catherine Hall (ed.), Fit Work for Women, London, 1979. She was pure, innocent, asexual and childlike, subordinate to and dependent upon the man, the breadwinner and head of the family. It is such a woman who is celebrated in George E. Hicks’s trilogy, Woman’s Mission, 1863 (Tate Gallery) exhibited at the Royal Academy in the same year as Hughes’s La Belle Dame sans merci

The opposite of the pure woman was the fallen women, the prostitute32 The literature on prostitution and on the fallen woman in art and literature is now extensive. On the subject of prostitution, see Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society, Cambridge, 1980. On the fallen woman in art and her relationship with the pure woman, see especially Lynn Nead, ‘The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting’, Oxford Art Journal 7, 1, 1984, pp. 26–37. For an opposing view of the fallen woman as a powerful figure who transcends her abasement, see Nina Auerbach, ‘The Rise of the Fallen Woman’, Nineteenth Century Fiction 35, June 1980, pp. 29–52. who as a sexually promiscuous woman, a threat to the home, the carrier of death and disease, as in short the ‘great social evil’ could be identified as a modern femme fatale. But this did not often occur. On the whole the ideas associated with the femme fatale were not usually incorporated into the construction of the fallen woman. When her sexuality was allowed to be active this was safely contained as a pathological deviancy.33 On the association of overt sexuality in women with insanity, see Elaine Showalter, ‘Victorian Women and Insanity’, Victorian Studies 23, Winter 1980, pp. 157–81. More often than not she was perceived as sexually passive, the victim of men’s greater sexual urges, the object of pity, not fear. Finally, she was transposed into a moral and religious sphere as a Magdalen, repentant and wracked by guilt, finding peace only in death. In nearly all visual representations the fallen woman appears as a conscience-laden victim not a temptress, sinful rather than wicked, as in Holman Hunt’s The awakening conscience, 1853–54 (Tate Gallery). 

These constructions of the fallen woman work to dissociate ideas of feminine sexuality and ideas of feminine power. The fallen woman was a threat to society, not because she was actively evil and powerful, but through the unintended effects of her sinful activities. The femme fatale, on the other hand, was of her essence evil, and her power irresistible. Such a figure could not be comfortably accommodated in discourses about the fallen woman, let alone in visual representation. 

Given then the dominance in mid Victorian domestic ideology of the pure woman and the defusion of the frightening sexual potential of the fallen woman, it is no surprise that images of the femme fatale are problematic and that Hughes’s La Belle Dame sans merci should look like a damsel in distress. 

Dr Robyn Cooper, The Power Department of Fine Arts, The University of Sydney (in 1986).  

I would like to thank Nancy Underhill for her assistance with this article. 


1           Pre-Raphaelite Art, State Art Galleries of Australia, 1962 and The Pre-Raphaelites and Their Circle in the National Gallery of Victoria, 1978. 

2           Robin Gibson/Arthur Hughes: Arthurian and Related Subjects of the Early 1860’s’, Burlington Magazine 112, July 1970, p. 452.    

3              ibid., p. 455. 

4              Athenaeum, no. 1855, 16 May 1863, p. 655. 

5              Athenaeum, no. 1857, 30 May 1863, p. 720. Both these references are cited in Robin Gibson 1970, p. 455.

6              Rossetti to F. M. Brown, 26 June 1865, W. M. Rossetti, Rossetti Papers 1862–1870, London, 1903, pp. 138–9. It is true that prices at this sale were generally depressed (see ibid.), but the fall in La Belle Dame sans merci was particularly drastic. Interestingly enough The knight in the sun, a picture in a similar vein, achieved one of the highest prices in the sale – £210 (Gibson 1970, p. 452). 

7              On the pre-Raphaelites and Keats, see George H. Ford, Keats and the Victorians, New Haven, 1944. 

8              William Holman Hunt, Pre-Raphaelitism and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, 2 vols, London, 1905, vol. I, pp. 105–6. The title of the painting, which is in the Guildhall Art Gallery, London, is The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro during the Drunkenness Attending the Revelry ‘The Eve of St Agnes’. 

9              ibid., pp. 80, 103–4. 

10            ibid., p. 159. 

11            ibid., p. 85. 

12            ibid., p. 104. 

13            Virginia M. Allen, ‘The Femme Fatale: A Study of the Early Development of the Concept in Mid-Nineteenth Century Poetry and Painting’, Ph. D. dissertation, Boston University, 1979, p. 160. 

14            The drawing is not dated, but according to Robin Gibson 1970, p. 455, it is ‘traditionally’ dated to 1855. 

15            On the femme fatale, see Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony, 2nd edn, London, 1951; R. Hoffman Hays, The Dangerous Sex: The Myth of Feminine Evil, London, 1966; Patrick Bade, Femme Fatale: Images of Evil and Fascinating Women, London, 1978 and Virginia Allen 1979. 

16            See Virginia M. Allen, “One Strangling Golden Hair”: Rossetti’s “Lady Lilith”, Art Bulletin 66, June 1984, pp. 285–94, and Sarah Phelps Smith, ‘Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s “Lady Lilith” and the “Language of Flowers’”, Arts Magazine 53, February 1979, pp. 142–5. 

17            Quoted Virginia Allen 1984, p. 286. 

18            Gibson 1970, p. 451. 

19            ibid., p. 452. 

20            Virginia Allen 1979, pp. 83, 88. 

21            Gibson 1970, p. 455. 

22            Athenaeum, no. 1857, 30 May 1863, p. 720. 

23            On this point, see especially Griselda Pollock, ‘Artists, Mythologies and Media Genius, Madness and Art History’, Screeen 21, 1980, pp. 57–96. 

24            Virginia Allen 1979, p. 174. 

25            On this and other Victorian paintings of sirens, see Lynda Nead, ‘Woman as Temptress: The Siren and the Mermaid in Victorian Painting’, Leeds Art Calendar, vol. 91, 1982, pp. 5–20. 

26            Quoted Virginia Allen 1984, p. 292. 

27            Mary S. Hartman, Victorian Murderesses, New York, 1977, p. 262. 

28            On the association of the New Woman with decadence, in fiction and literary criticism, see Linda Dowling, ‘The Decadent and the New Woman in the 1890’s’, Nineteenth Century Fiction 33, March 1979, pp. 34–53. 

29            Joanna Frueh, ‘Re-vamping the Vamp’, Arts Magazine 57, October 1982, p. 99. 

30            Virginia Allen 1984, p. 293. 

31            On Victorian domestic ideology, see W. E. Houghton, The Victorian Frame of Mind 1850–1870, New Haven and London, 1957, ch. 13 and Catherine Hall, ‘The early Formation of Victorian Domestic Ideology’, in Catherine Hall (ed.), Fit Work for Women, London, 1979. 

32            The literature on prostitution and on the fallen woman in art and literature is now extensive. On the subject of prostitution, see Judith Walkowitz, Prostitution and Victorian Society, Cambridge, 1980. On the fallen woman in art and her relationship with the pure woman, see especially Lynn Nead, ‘The Magdalen in Modern Times: The Mythology of the Fallen Woman in Pre-Raphaelite Painting’, Oxford Art Journal 7, 1, 1984, pp. 26–37. For an opposing view of the fallen woman as a powerful figure who transcends her abasement, see Nina Auerbach, ‘The Rise of the Fallen Woman’, Nineteenth Century Fiction 35, June 1980, pp. 29–52. 

33            On the association of overt sexuality in women with insanity, see Elaine Showalter, ‘Victorian Women and Insanity’, Victorian Studies 23, Winter 1980, pp. 157–81.