The 18th World Congress of Jewish Studies

Beauty and the Beast: Caricatures of Jewish Women in Fin-de-Siècle France

Over the centuries, European literary and artistic conventions associated the Jewess with great sensuality and beauty. Her physical attractiveness, considered a marker of interior spiritual merit, was contrasted with the male Jew’s physical and moral ugliness. This phenomenon culminated in the 19th century Romantic stereotype of the Belle Juive, seen in Old Testament and Orientalist paintings, novels and contemporary writings. The proposed lecture will discuss the shifting graphic representation of the Jewess in late 19th century France, and the moment of departure from the ideal of the beautiful Jewess as seen in ephemeral art.

My lecture will focus on the graphic works of Jean-Louis Forain (1852-1931), Caran d`Ache (1858- 1909) and Gyp (1849-1932), whose work greatly contributed to the visual vilification of the Jewess. First, I will discuss the novel use of traditional iconographic elements of antisemitism when depicting the Jewess in caricature. I will show how at the end of the century, the graphic medium contributed to the negative image of the Jewess, and demonstrate how her visual vilification was strongly linked to the Dreyfus Affair. Second, I will examine the evolution of two distinct types of Jewish women: the chic Jewess, always elegantly dressed, and the ugly Jewess, who often sports a hideous face and an ultra-feminine body. The former is a modern iteration of the sexy Belle Juive, while the latter is depicted as an intruder into high society, her facial features, breasts and backside often exaggerated to the point of the grotesque. This lecture will discuss the catch-22 for contemporary Jewish women at the turn of the century, as both their beauty and their ugliness were seen as markers of Jewishness, and every aspect of their appearance was manipulated in order to confirm antisemitic prejudices.