Images of desire and danger: the femme fatale in posters

233. Lulu Belle. 1948.

Though the term femme fatale was not coined until the 20th century, the archetype of the dangerous heartbreaker is centuries old—and she continues to be the magnetic anti-heroine of art, film, and culture to this day. And no wonder—the femme fatale is a fascinating paradox: equal parts seductive and audacious, she is unattainable, but you’ll try to win her over anyway. 

In the 19th century, male artists fought to retain their dominance over a shifting society by harnessing the “grim ladies,” as they were then called, as muses for their work. While the ladies fought for equal rights and left the domestic realm to pursue professional goals, they became simultaneously threatening and elusive to male control—the very stuff of femme fatale legends. Naturally, posterists throughout the ages have heralded the vixen; see below for enticing images from our upcoming 77th Rare Posters auction (and a song to accompany your perusal above).

237. La Cigale / T-y viens-t-y? 1900.
By Jules-Alexandre Grün (1868-1938)
15 x 23 1/8 in./38.2 x 58.7 cm
Est: $1,700-$2,000

This no holds barred image from Grün places female temptation front and center. An altogether arresting design—humorous, seductive, and rather openly sapphic for a revue at La Cigale—seen here with text that announced its rather suggestive title: “‘Are you coming?’ ‘T’y viens-t-y?’ is ample proof that the Belle Epoque sauciness remained a preferred theme. A beauty—as always buxom and with an ample décolleté (a mere strap, possibly required by the censors, hides her nipple) is about to be led away by some kind of a disguised Pierrot. A chubby policeman (a transvestite?) who is trampling a passerby seems to enjoy the sight. The scene is complete with the Moulin de la Galette and an April moon in the background. Oh! Montmartre!” (Grün, p. 52). This is the larger format.

7. La Vérité / Le Vélo-Caténol! 1897.
By Decam
31 1/8 x 63 1/2 in./79 x 161.3 cm
Est: $2,000-$2,500

This iconic, mind-boggling poster from Decam is a perfect iteration of the whims and wiles of the grim lady. Based on the allegorical imagery frequently associated with the French proverb “La Verité sort du puits” (The Truth comes out of a well), in which a nude female representing Truth is seen leaping forth from a well, we are here presented with an alternative heroine: she is chained to the well with what appears to be a bike chain, while a bike-chain-like mechanism is depicted behind her as she makes a superstitious hand gesture against bad luck. Whether the chains are meant to protect or punish the truth, we may never know—but this Vélo-Caténol bicycling ad is endlessly engrossing.

135. Medea. 1917.
By Otto Baumberger (1889-1961)
35 3/8 x 50 1/4 in./90 x 127.7 cm
Est: $1,200-$1,500

Medea, caught between stoicism and traumatic paralysis, emerges from a blood-suffused background in this captivating, can’t-look-away poster for a 1917 production by a traveling Viennese theater company. The classical tragedy by Euripides focuses on the sorceress Medea’s vengeance upon her unfaithful husband, Jason, who betrayed his wife even though she helped him obtain the Golden Fleece. It was one of the most-performed classical dramas during the 20th century, and brought the world the phrase “deus ex machina.” But in this poster, we see no god, no machine—just a woman trapped by the patriarchy.

198. La Tendre Ennemie. 1936.
By Paul Colin (1892-1986)
37 1/2 x 58 3/4 in./95.2 x 149.3 cm
Est: $2,000-$3,000

This comedy by Andre-Paul Antoine tells the tale of three ghosts who meet on a park bench, only to discover they’d all been in love with the same woman—who had, in some way, been responsible for each of their deaths. A novel in 1928, it made its way to the avant-garde Studio des Champs-Élysées theatre in 1930, and then became an award-winning film in 1936.

233. Lulu Belle. 1948.
By Boris Grinsson (1907-1999)
46 x 63 in./117 x 160 cm
Est: $1,000-$1,200

Lulu Belle is a jazz-singer femme fatale who, try as she might, can’t be true to her boxer beau. This poster is for the French release of the Dorothy Lamour / George Montgomery film, based upon a 1920s play of the same name.

136. Mistinguett. ca. 1913.
By G. K. Benda (Georges Klugelmann)
45 1/2 x 59 3/8 in./115.6 x 150.8 cm
Est: $1,700-$2,000

Of course, this wouldn’t be a femme fatale poster collection without the indomitably coquettish Mistinguett. Over her 50-year career in French song, dance, and cabaret, she mastered the art of desire by sculpting her stage personas to mirror her audiences’ yearnings for love, glamour, wealth, and happiness. In reflecting what others wanted, she herself became the greatest object of desire—but she dedicated herself to the stage, and never married. As she once said, “We sell [the audience] a trip to nowhere, canvas landscapes, moonbeams made out of gelatin.” But what an intoxicating illusion!

210B. Alice Soulié. 1926.
By Jean-Gabriel Domergue (1889-1962)
46 1/4 x 63 in./117.5 x 160 cm
Est: $1,700-$2,000

A tantalizing moment of suspense: the alluring cabaret performer (and rumored transvestite) Alice Soulié emerges from the shadows, highlighting her long, sinewy angles against the organic plush of her oversized feathered fan. By the come-hither-if-you-dare look on her face, she’s certainly up to no good—but there’s no denying that this image from Domergue is an elegant intoxication.

These items (and hundreds more!)
are available at auction
Sunday, February 24 at 11am EST
Order the full PAI-LXXVII: Rare Posters catalogue now
for full details on all 435 lots