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Exquisite corpses: The depreciation of female death in artistic representation

Neil Holmstrom
This paper compares artistic representations of female and male death. It posits the
view that primarily male artists have contributed to a devaluing of female death:
that whereas male death has been portrayed as heroic, courageous, self sacrificial
and extraordinary; female death has been depicted as ordinary, mundane and less
worthy of serious consideration. It considers the sexual reification of the female
corpse in art, particularly during the nineteenth century, and proposes that artists
working in this era frequently portrayed female death as an inevitable consequence
of the individual, moral degradation of their subjects. The cultural and social
conditions that inspired artists in their portrayals of female death at this time will
also be examined, as will conjecture that artistic representations of female death
allowed for the metaphorical subjection and containment of the ’wild and
untameable female sexuality’ that was associated with women throughout the
nineteenth century. It will also suggest that many artists employed the inherent
alterity of the female form to produce works that allowed for a dispassionate
analysis of death which further contributed to the removal of the agency of all
women in death.
Key Words: Female death, death and representation, corpse reification, death
devalued, exquisite corpses, Femme Fatale.
1. Introduction
‘Ever since man has tried to express himself artistically, the real motive behind
his desire to give gestalt to his thoughts and feelings has been his unconscious need
to triumph over death and to perpetuate the concept of his hidden self’1.
Man’s desire to ‘triumph over death’ or at least find a way to engage with his
anxieties about death’s immutability has found expression in many cultures and
civilizations throughout history. As a consequence, death is one of the oldest and
most ubiquitous themes in the history of art. The reasons for this are fairly obvious;
the inevitability of death is intrinsic to the human condition and has thus found
currency in every culture, society and civilisation that has ever existed. What is
less obvious, despite the commonality of the experience of death, is the somewhat
mystifying difference between artistic representations of male and female death.

that man is born a child of the devil. and wicked. Unfortunately this optimism about the human condition did not extend to the condition of women. Indeed. In Europe.. the vast majority of female death portraits from this time demonstrate the relative immateriality of the subject’s individual character. was frequently paralleled.. A combination of this embedded misogyny and new anxieties about the changing roles of women brought about by industrialization. that once awakened. their great suffering in death or their courage under adversity. Richard Leppert describes ‘the rampant misogyny evident in the late eighteenth century and throughout the nineteenth. No longer were religious traditions considered to have the answers to all questions. according to middle class sensibilities. will reveal a striking divergence in the way that male and female death has been portrayed. morally and physically destructive-notably of men’5. with prostitution4. Contained within the widespread assault on women was an underlying mistrust and fear of female sexuality. As Voltaire stated ‘We are told that human nature is essentially perverse. hierarchical classification lauded and employed in the Age of Enlightenment.. .. ‘was oddly. even as women were considered of less importance than men. The ‘awakening’ of women in taking paid positions in the workforce. resulted in a yet further exultation of the Anglo-Saxon male and a corresponding denigration of the female state. while significantly objectifying the female form. manifested itself in an extraordinary proliferation of artworks that effectively depreciated female death as being of less consequence than male death. the Age of Enlightenment brought about a massive upsurge in interest in scientific classification and the glorification of science based learning. This difference reached a climax of sorts in Europe in the nineteenth century. Men retaliated to this perceived female incursion into ‘masculine’ domains by questioning the morality of female workers3. much more noble. This heightened fear of female sexuality and contempt directed towards women generally. was characteristic of the Enlightenment and the following century in Europe. Nothing can be more ill-considered. Attacks against women were vitriolic and misogynistic in the extreme. Artists working in this era almost exclusively depicted male subjects in an heroic or martyred manner.’2. Industrial reforms saw many women moving out of the domestic sphere and into the traditionally male dominated workforce. see how dreadful it is to corrupt the purity of your being. which paid testimony to their self sacrificial character. It will be much more rational.2 Exquisite corpses: The depreciation of female death in artistic representation __________________________________________________________________ Even a fairly cursory consideration of artworks based on the subject of death. unnatural. and socially. Conversely. This contributed to women being characterised as being possessed of a sexuality. to say to men: ‘You are all born good. One of the primary reasons for this denigration of women can best be explained by considering the social change that was occurring throughout Europe at this time. and the phenomenal level of male hysteria concerning female sexuality’6. the scientific. unquenchable. and no longer was man’s moral condition judged exclusively on Christian principles.

the shapely curves of her body. The corpse is presented as sexually desirable and the moral impoverishment of the dead woman becomes the primary subject of the work. ‘during the second half of the nineteenth century another formal representation of death was developed. The woman’s identity and the manner of her death are . her arm fallen from the table in a classic state of sexual surrender. (the most illuminated portion of the work). Coincidental with society’s fascination for scientific classification and empirical analysis of human biology and pathology. a stereotype in which the same scenes are reproduced with almost pinpoint accuracy: a table in some morgue or clinic. is the stark preponderance of works focussed on the postmortem female. Exquisite corpses One of the ways that the anxiety and superstition that surrounded women and death manifested itself at this time was in post-mortem portraits of women. is positioned for the viewer’s pleasure. when he writes about the fascination surrounding public post-mortem dissections in the mid to late nineteenth century in Europe. As Mireia Ferrer Álvarez observes. who jumped on the autopsy art bandwagon in 1890 with his Heart’s Anatomy9. an anatomist musing’7. Leppert sheds some light on the social motivation for these artworks. that it instrumentally altered the semiotic evaluation of the female/death equation in such a way that the death of female subjects in artistic representation was materially devalued. the body of a woman lying. The cascading hair.Neil Holmstrom 3 __________________________________________________________________ This paper suggests that imagery that united women with death became so pervasive in Europe during the nineteenth century. She had a heart! would appear to be premised on the assumption that a prostitute must necessarily be metaphorically at least. Does the anatomist examine the heart of a ‘fallen’ woman in an attempt to discover a physiological difference that might explain her implied moral deficiency? The body of the woman is significantly reified. was an intriguing abundance of artworks that were devoted to post-mortem anatomy. This ‘prurient’ interest in the dissection of female corpses is particularly expressed in works such as that of Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. The subject of the work is the post-mortem dissection of a beautiful young prostitute10. which saw members of the public scrambling for tickets to ‘watch the show’. The alternative title. all seem aimed at portraying the woman as an object of desire. What is perhaps less surprising in the context of this research. apparently in meditative contemplation of the young woman’s heart which he holds in his hand. This painting is intriguing on a number of levels. 2. Leppert remarks that ‘entrance to the general public was by purchasing tickets and these were expensive if the corpse was female (audiences were male). ‘heartless’. The woman’s partially draped body. Science mixed freely with prurience and not incidentally simultaneously complimented the scopophilia informing the painting of female nudes’8. The anatomist stands beside the corpse. The pondering of the heart of the corpse adds additional readings to this work.

In this instance. a risk guarded against by the bevy of earnest and conscientious observers. This is a scene of academic enquiry. The contrast between works depicting female and male post-mortem dissections from this era is conspicuous. since the erotic was an integral part of the fascination with death characteristic of. is not surprising. painted in 1860 by Francois Feyen-Perrin. for want of a better word. Romanticism’13 Perhaps it is all of these things. and while we do not know the identity of the corpse. simply the employment of ‘the metaphor of woman as the source of nature and the discovery of truth represented by the female body’12. collegial atmosphere in the work. the unusual angle of the head is indicative of rigor: there is no suggestion that the subject is anything other than dead. as suggested by Álvarez.. The autopsy room represented an arena for sanctioned interference with the female body by men: a place of safety for men to legitimately probe and investigate the mystery of womanhood. there is nothing at all questionable happening here. Velpeau11 .. This work is characteristic of the fairly limited number of nineteenth century autopsy artworks where the subject of dissection is male. apart from the allusion to her profession. it was a pleasing reinforcement of the characterisation of the inalienable connection between women and death. Or perhaps it is as Ludmilla Jordanova surmises that ‘the obsession with the female corpse in particular. albeit unknowing participant in a scientific exercise. which only serves to further objectify her position. Artistic representations of female autopsies also allowed for the metaphorical suppression of the wild and ungovernable female sexuality that men found so threatening. neither is there anything transgressive in the treatment of his body as suggested in Simonet’s work. but to a public obsessed with female degeneracy. If men could not literally ‘know’ or . a strategically placed student in the foreground preserves its propriety. there is no sense whatsoever of sexual reification of the body. Although the corpse appears in good condition. the title immediately sets the tone of the work. The male body is modestly displayed. We must ask: why are there so many paintings of female autopsies compared to those of male autopsies and why are they portrayed in such an overtly sexual manner? Why are the scenes so contrived as to illuminate the female form and show the contemplative pondering of the attending anatomist? It may well be. There is something else here that is of particular importance that is characteristic of a multitude of works of this type painted during the nineteenth century. Indeed there is nothing to suggest that the unfortunate individual is anything but an honourable. Most importantly in comparison to female post-mortem works form this period. There is a respectful. but I would suggest that it equally signifies a masculine contempt for female death: that female sexuality was shown to receive its ‘just desserts’: that the death of the female was not only the logical consequence of a fearful and irrepressible sexuality that was believed to be inherent in all women.4 Exquisite corpses: The depreciation of female death in artistic representation __________________________________________________________________ irrelevant. An example of this distinction can be found in The Anatomy lesson of Dr.

the heroine of Greek mythology. Rixens’ Cleopatra is supine on a bed and predictably naked. We know the story of Cleopatra’s life and death.Neil Holmstrom 5 __________________________________________________________________ comprehend woman. Similarly Penthesilea. 3. the vast majority of which have her semi or totally naked. are the majority of paintings from the same era. he is a picture of rude health and vitality. while his female sex slaves are all naked and arranged in a remarkable variety of poses clearly aimed at satisfying the voyeuristic intent of the artist and presumably. Supported across the thigh of the muscular . the viewer. but she no longer had the agency to act. There are in fact numerous paintings portraying her death. but these details become subordinate to the visual feast of sensuously displayed flesh that is depicted. is represented in a blatantly sexual pose by Tischbein. Sitting upright in bed. She may have yet been mysterious. In stark contrast once again. particularly in the Romantic era and throughout the nineteenth century. Johann Tischbein’s The Death of Penthesilea16 and Jean-André Rixens’ Death of Cleopatra17. He is fully clothed. Nor had she the ability to threaten man’s mortality. Her left hand trails towards the floor to more clearly expose her breasts. Cleopatra is an interesting case in point. Even while his right hand reaches for the poisoned chalice that will bring about his death. both portray their subjects in an heroic and potent light. neither Sardinapalus nor Socrates is actually dead. In both paintings. Sardinapalus remains the most powerful subject in the work. but also their courage and integrity in death. Of heroes and lesser mortals Portraits of dead and dying heroes were likewise standard fare for artists. then at least to have her dead was to have her contained. dealing with the death of famous or notorious female characters. David’s Socrates also exudes extraordinary potency. masterful and resolute until the end. Paintings such as Eugene Delacroix’s Death of Sardinapalus14 and Jacques-Louis David’s The Death of Socrates15. despite the titles of these works. Sardinapalus reclines on his death bed. the viewer is visually compelled to consider not only the power and importance of the individual male subjects depicted. his left hand rises imperiously as he declaims yet another Socratic apophthegm. which both further eliminates her agency and enhances her availability18. Although his own death is imminent. dispassionately observing the carnage surrounding him involving the massacre of his harem. both exemplify the vastly different treatment given to female subjects by artists in the nineteenth century. Indeed. woman was still intriguing and unsettling to a degree but rendered powerless by her death and apparently ripe for unhindered exploration by male anatomists. this despite the fact that the historical records that describe her death indicate quite clearly that she was clothed in ‘her most beautiful apparel’19at the moment of her death. while her pubic area is shaved. Both these works are examples of a broad range of artworks from this period that similarly depict male death in heroic or virtuous terms. As an object.

The ‘otherness’ of woman was firmly entrenched in European society at the Fin de Siècle. Her voluptuous body is submerged in water. unquestionably the most poetical topic in the world’ (Edgar Allen Poe). In Millais’ painting. Death of the ‘other’ ‘The death of a beautiful woman is. Although we know that she is dead. death here is idealised and romanticised. The voyeuristic intent of the viewer was invited and . represents a striking example of the romanticised and mythologized female corpse. which represents her great valour as a warrior in the Trojan wars20. in a classic demonstration of sexual surrender. was the fact that post mortem female portraits from this era were invariably of beautiful women (or were at least depicted as such by artists). these facets of her character are immaterial in the artistic assessment of her death. In both these works. despite the mythology around Penthesilea. Death is here but it has lost its sting. The unpalatable fact of death was masked so that the viewer was able to take visual pleasure in the interaction with the work – the death state becoming subordinate to the beauty of the subject. As Elisabeth Bronfen observes. Age is not written on their bodies. a certain pallor is often the only concession to the absence of life. the viewer’s gaze had yet additional areas to focus upon. Penthesilea lies in a fatal swoon. It is as if the heart has simply stopped beating while these women are still in the full bloom of youth and loveliness. her breasts clearly defined and thrust forward. Shakespeare’s tragic heroine lies in her wedding garb in an idyllic setting surrounded by foliage and flowers. Her head is tilted back and her still rosy lips are parted. offered an additional benefit to both the male artist and viewer: that of comfort. Added to the separation. rather than from a position that acknowledges their heroism. Her titian hair swirls about her head. power or virtue. John Everett Millais’ Ophelia22 from 1852. Bronfen argues that this sanitised and beautified representation of death placed it into ‘the service of the aesthetic process’23. This device effectively invites the viewers of the works to engage with the deaths of these women from a sexually voyeuristic viewpoint.6 Exquisite corpses: The depreciation of female death in artistic representation __________________________________________________________________ Achilles. The objectification of the female corpse. Once again. and she is strikingly beautiful. If the beautiful female corpse was also naked or semi-naked. yet both her hands break the surface in a gesture of welcome. 4. with representations of her death (by the male artist) effectively alienating the (male) viewer yet further from the reality of death. the artist has chosen to sexually reify the bodies of the female subjects at the expense of the women’s agency and individuality. indeed there is no sense at all of the horror of the emotional and physical turmoil that precipitated her suicide. while an arrow is positioned suggestively between her legs. Her complexion is pale but not uncommonly so and shows none of the depredations of death. nor is the evidence of major trauma or the wasting effects of disease. there is little about her body that belies this fact. depictions of death generally ‘are pleasing to us because they necessarily depict the death of the other’21.

The disparity between the artistic representation of the death of historically significant male and female subjects during this era is glaring and profound. As a result.Neil Holmstrom 7 __________________________________________________________________ encouraged (the corpse could neither gaze back. To consider the personal circumstances of an individual requires a degree of emotional investment. The entrenched misogyny and fear of female sexuality manifested during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Likewise the volume of artworks that romanticised and idealised female death. If the subject was found to be a ‘fallen’ woman such as a prostitute. Thus the dead subject’s identity was frequently abstracted as was her individual experience of death. contrasting appreciably in both form and thematic with autopsy paintings of male corpses. sexually reified the female corpse and consistently objectified female death. something that was rarely afforded female death in artistic representation in the nineteenth century. nor disallow the viewer’s gaze). the distance was further enhanced by the implication that through her licentiousness she had invited death and her demise was therefore comfortingly reasonable. female death was almost uniformly devalued in a way that positioned woman as the logical and appropriate locus of death. While male death was consistently elevated as heroic and virtuous. and the female form was additionally objectified and the fact of death further subordinated. In effect this alienation from the reality of death provided the viewer with a platform for a dispassionate analysis of the death state. Notes . was reflected in the proliferation of a wide range of artworks by predominantly male artists that denigrated women generally but in particular. the particularity of female corpses was rendered largely irrelevant in the desire to employ the alterity of the female form to provide an effective vehicle for the viewer’s metaphorical dissection of death itself. 5. in which female corpses were invariably beautiful and erotically charged. Conclusion A pronounced art historical tradition that united the figure of woman with the enigma of death found new expression in Europe during the Age of Enlightenment and throughout the following century. Paintings of female autopsies became increasingly popular. also increased markedly.

Heinemann: New York Macmillan. 6 vols. 21 Elisabeth Bronfen. and Herbert Baldwin Foster.. X. Boulder. 1996). 2 Bibliography Bronfen. Faces of death : visualising history: 182. J. Over Her Dead Body : Death.: University of Wisconsin Press. Renate and Klaartje Schrijvers. Elisabeth. Five German tragedies. A philosophical dictionary : from the French.gif 17 Death of Cleopatra (1874) by Jean-André Rixens can be viewed at: http://www. Leppert. U.neilholmstrom. 242. Cambridge .com/wp-content/uploads/2012/07/francois-nicolas-augustin-feyen-perrin_the-anatomy-lesson-ofdoctor-velpeau-1795-1867.jpg 12 Peto and Schrijvers. 3 Susan Mosher Stuard. Faces of Death : Visualising History. Dio's Roman history.neilholmstrom. Art and the Committed Eye : The Cultural Functions of Imagery. Manchester. 13 L. Faces of death : visualising history: J. Vol. Cassius Dio. New York: Cambridge University Press. Five German Tragedies. femininity and the 5. Voltaire. 342. 39. Penguin Classics. Over her dead body : death. Loeb classical library . and H. The Gender of Death : A Cultural History in Art and Literature. Hunt.jpg 15 The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David can be viewed at: http://www. 358. CO: Westview Press. Wis. Faces of death : visualising history (Pisa: Plus-Pisa University Press. 1989. Cultural studies (Boulder. L. J.L. 1998).neilholmstrom. Loeb Classical Library . 1960). 22 Ophelia (1852) by John Everett Millais can be viewed at: http://www. (London. VI. 182. Wiesner. 1999. Science and literature (Madison. Over her dead body : death.1 Walter Sorell. 9 Heart’s Anatomy (1890) by Enrique Simonet can be viewed at: http://www. Madison.neilholmstrom. Art and the committed eye : the cultural functions of imagery. Becoming visible : women in European Lamport. 1989). Wis.: Manchester University Press. CO: Westview Press. 77 Andrea Peto and Klaartje Schrijvers. 209. 4 Ibid.jpg 18 Leppert. Jordanova. 312. London. (London: J.neilholmstrom. 237. and Merry E. 1973).jpg 23 Bronfen. Richard D. and Herbert Baldwin Foster.neilholmstrom.neilholmstrom. Pisa: Plus-Pisa University Press. Peto. 1824). 1992). 66 Ibid.. Guthke. Cocceianus. 1992.: University of Wisconsin Press. England: Penguin Books. femininity and the aesthetic (Manchester. Sexual Visions : Images of Gender in Science and Medicine between the Eighteenth and Twentieth Centuries. 1969). Cultural Studies.K. 14 Death of Sardinapalus (1827) by Eugene Delacroix can be viewed at: http://www.. 3rd ed. 2009.K.: Manchester University Press. Earnest Cary. Art and the committed eye : the cultural functions of imagery. 5 Richard D. England: Penguin Books. Femininity and the Aesthetic. vol. Karl Siegfried.jpg 16 The Death of Penthesilea (1828) by Johann Tischbein can be viewed at: http://www. U. 88 Leppert. 2009). Art and the committed eye : the cultural functions of imagery: 122. 2d ed. Heinemann: New York Macmillan. Leppert. 19 Cocceianus Cassius Dio. J. 1960. 171. Jordanova. 1969. Earnest Cary. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin. Lamport. 312. The other face : the mask in the arts (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc. Science and Literature. . F.. Andrea. VI. Sexual visions : images of gender in science and medicine between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries. Velpeau (1860) by Francois Nicolas Augustin Feyen-Perrin can be viewed at: http://www. 1996. 20 F. 11 The Anatomy lesson of Dr. Harmondsworth. 98.jpg 10 Peto and Schrijvers. Dio's Roman History. Penguin classics (Harmondsworth.

Neil Holmstrom is a Tasmanian printmaker and textile artist who is currently undertaking a PhD in Art and Design theory at the University of Tasmania. Voltaire. Becoming Visible : Women in European History.. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. 1973.L. Walter. Wiesner. Susan Mosher. 3rd ed. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company Inc. Renate Bridenthal. Stuard. and H. . A Philosophical Dictionary : From the French. 6 vols London: J. and Merry E. Australia. The Other Face : The Mask in the Arts. Hunt. 1998.Sorell. Neil is particularly interested in thanatology as it applies to art history. and his current research topic compares artistic representations of male and female death. 1824. 2d ed.