“The death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic in the world.”

—Edgar Allan Poe, “Philosophy of Composition,” 
originally appeared in Graham’s Magazine, published in Philadelphia, in April 1846

The 19th-century affair with death is no great news to anyone even remotely familiar with its art or literature. It was a period of morbid aesthetics and a peculiar and apparently inexplicable fascination with deadly eroticism. The poetic and artistic imagination of the time began conceiving of the erotic as invariably “touched by death,” and of death as invariably touched by the erotic. In this climate, the beautiful dead or dying woman became a site where Eros and Thanatos could come together and speak the same language through the image of her body, ambivalently wrought either by death or by orgasm: “Dying could confer just as much glamour as did death. In a Barbey d’Aurevilly of the 1830s, the mere touch of a moribound heroine’s feeble, feverish hand set a hero’s bone marrow tingling” (Binion 8). Lawrence Kramer notes that:  “[D]ead and dying women were notoriously seductive for nineteenth-century men. The bodies of such women, imaginary ones anyway, were felt to combine the pliancy of flesh with the perfection of a sculpture, making the death of women at once a form of art and form of sex” (194).

Every 19th-century household with aspirations to cultural elitism considered it imperative to own and display a portrait of a dying girl. The bourgeoisie as well as the aristocracy were, “eager to pay large sums of money to acquire images of women in stages of abject physical degeneration, painted by the highest-paid artists of the day,” (Dijkstra 28). Fuseli’s 1821 painting entitled “A Sleeping Woman and the Furies,” depicting a semi-naked woman limply bent over and frozen in either a post-orgasmic or post-mortal dream, is one of the best examples of the trend. So also are Delacroix’s 1827 painting “Odalisque Reclining on a Divan” and Clesinger’s 1847 sculpture “Woman Bitten by a Snake,” which depict similarly limp female bodies, seemingly dead, yet sexually inviting. In the visual culture of the moment, the eroticization of the dead female body and vice versa, the fashioning of the female body into a corpse for erotic appeal, became a matter of current fashion.

No wonder then that, “in an environment which valued self-negation as the principal evidence of woman’s ‘moral value,’ women enveloped by illness were the visual equivalents of spiritual purity,” (Dijkstra 27–8). “The apotheosis of this self-negation was death, a kind of triumph of virtue through fragility” (Fraser 245). By killing herself, or by dying slowly from a picturesquely degenerative illness, woman was giving the ultimate proof of her devotion to the male ideal. A perfect “lady” was “refined,” and her refinement was a mixture of physical and mental vulnerability: “A healthy woman, it was often thought, was likely to be an ‘unnatural’ woman. Proper human angels were weak, helpless,” (Dijkstra 26). Thus, pursuing the “natural” fragile feminine ideal through both behavior and outside appearance became a woman’s full-time job and her “first duty to society” (Steele 102). “It was at this time that we begin to have the image of the sighing, swooning female who often needed smelling salts to revive her,” (Russell 342). Practiced devotedly, the art of fainting entered the flirting repertoire of every self-respecting young society woman. By fainting gracefully, after all, she was not only able to reveal herself as a perfectly feeble and, thus, a cultivated, “saintly” woman, but also to present herself in the most erotic pose of the moment: limp, vulnerable, and unconscious—in other words, dead-like.

The aura of the mystic sublime became a condition of socioeconomic reality that structured 19th-century femininity. The idea of the sublime came to be separated from the idea of simple beauty beginning in 1764, with Kant’s essay on the sublime (“Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and Sublime”). If the beautiful was that which merely aroused aesthetic pleasure, the sublime was that which aroused transcendental feelings of greatness and exaltation (from Latin: sublimis—exalted). If initially the idea of the sublime referred to nature (breathtaking mountains or deserts), by the 19th century it began to refer to female beauty. Any woman could be beautiful, but only the one whose necro-beauty suggested otherworldly, transcendental purity could be called sublime. By the late 19th century, the female corpse, with its white, limp flesh, became the new erotic sublime of the époque. The tuberculotic woman’s morbid beauty, her translucent skin, and beautiful death became the standard by which all other “sublime” feminine beauty would be subsequently judged.


Music sheet cover of La Traviata, printed by John Brandard, around 1860.

In the 1860s, a “sublime tubercular emaciation” became a desired model of femininity, generating the very first epidemic of anorexic starvation (Dijkstra 43). For example, in Arthur Hughes’s 1852 Ophelia painting, “[s]he is emaciated and tubercular and therefore has all the requisite attributes of the icons of illness. Consumptive fever has heightened the contrast between the pallor of her skin and her red lips and the deathlike shadows around her eyes” (Dijkstra 43). Thus, “around 1890 the Parisian cosmetics firm of Houbigant sought to create massive interest in its latest facial powder by calling it ‘Poudre Ophelia.’ The new product was widely advertised as a true ‘talisman of beauty.’ [It was said to create] at least the outward appearance of being as decorously pale and fragile as any true Ophelia,” (Dijkstra 46). Paleness became a sign of beauty because it was a sign of sickness and of impending death. A pale woman carried the omen of her demise on her face, and tubercular paleness was “sublime” partially on account of being touched by “her future death.”

For 19th-century opera, dying of tuberculosis was a particularly dramatic device. Both Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème and Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata die poetically of tuberculosis. For actresses of the era performing the part, it was often quite a challenge to live up to the expectations of these roles. In his 1891 review of the La Traviata performance by Emma Albani, the leading soprano of the 19th century, George Bernard Shaw wrote sarcastically of her not sufficiently tubercular figure that we should:

…feel abundantly grateful to Albani for having so trained herself that nobody can say anything worse of her than that she is pleasingly plump. Indeed, in one way her figure is just the thing for La Traviata, as it does away with the painful impression which the last act produces whether there is the faintest realism about. Even in the agonies of death Albani, robs the sick bed and the medicine bottles of half their terrors by her reassuring air of doing as well as can be expected. Still, I submit that though the representation is not painful, it is in the last degree ridiculous. In saying this I by no means endorse the verdict of those colleagues of mine who are declaring in all directions that the opera is antiquated, impossible, absurd, a relic of the old regime, and so on. Verdi’s opera is one thing: the willful folly of the Covent Garden parody of it is quite another. Take any drama ever written, and put it on a stage six times too large for its scenes, introducing the maddest incongruities of furniture, costume, and manners at every turn of it; and it will seem as nonsensical as La Traviata, even without the crowning burlesque of a robust, joyous, round-cheeked lady figuring as moribund patient in decline. (206)

Originally posted at Boston Lyric Opera blog (10/9/14).

Read more:

Auerbach, N. Romantic Imprisonment: Women and the Other Glorified Outcasts. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986. Print.

Bassein, B. A. Women and Death: Linkages in Western Thought and Literature. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1984. Print.

Bataille, G. Eroticism: Death & Sensuality. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1986. Print.

Binion, R. Love Beyond Death: The Anatomy of Myth in the Arts. New York: New York University Press, 1993. Print.

Bronfen, E. Over Her Dead Body: Death, Femininity and the Aesthetic. New York: Routledge, 1992. Print.

Dijkstra, B. Idols of Perversity: Fantasies of Feminine Evil in Fin-de-Siècle Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986. Print.

Fraser, R. S. On Ophelia. Shakespeare Yearbook 11 (2000): 238–259.

Kramer, L. After the Lovedeath: Sexual Violence and the Making of Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997. Print.

Russell, D. A. Costume History & Style. Englewood Cliff, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc.1983. Print. 

Steele, V. Fashion and Eroticism: Ideals of Feminine Beauty From the Victorian Era to the Jazz Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Print.