The Depiction of Culture in Victorian Art


I was immediately drawn to this image the moment I walked into the trout gallery during out last class. I am interested in the way in which the exotic was portrayed as something dangerous and threatening within this image. The contrasting colors of the pearly whiteness of the woman’s skin being overtaken by the contrasting dark snake is one of the many ways in which shading within this image seems to represent racial sentiments. The fact that the man in the background is watching this happen and blends into the background furthers this feeling of uneasiness and danger that is often associated with “the other” during the Victorian Era. I believe this shading is intentional for the author’s hopes to convey the danger of the exotic and other cultures.

I think it is important to analyze the artist’s choice of using a snake within this image. Snakes have the connotation of being evil, stealth, and sneaky. These connotations go as far back as the bible, whereas the snake tricked Eve into committing sin and giving into temptation. Thus, snakes generally represent deceit and allurement. One thing I didn’t think of upon looking at this image but that was brought up by a peer was the sensuality of  the woman’s face. In the image, the snake seems to be seducing the woman almost, while also constricting her. Perhaps this was meant to induce fear amongst viewers of other cultures being dangerous, exotic, and having the ability to tempt the innocent to sin.

Another aspect of this image I found to be very interesting was Professor Flaherty’s explanation that this picture depicted a sort of mash up of different cultures. The walls, the clothing of the man, the instrument, the materials; all belong to separate cultures. I believe that this indicated the tendency for Victorian peoples to lump ‘exotic’ cultures together into one ‘other.’ This seems to indicate that people of this time do not necessarily care about these cultures and their characteristics and uniqueness, but rather sees them as all the same, exemplifying the very definition of egocentrism.

All in all, this image represents both the fear of Victorians towards the exotic and their lack of education on the subject. This is just a theory, but at a time where travel and communication between people from across the world was very uncommon, the exotic or the ‘others’ likely became something of mystery. Tales of explorers may have reached those who have never left the country, but these tend to be exaggerated and changed through word of mouth. Furthermore, people tend to be afraid of things they don’t understand. Thus, this image represents both the fear of the exotic and the lack of knowledge on other cultures.

One thought on “The Depiction of Culture in Victorian Art”

  1. Now that we are looking at the image with a higher clarity, the figure playing the instrument appears to be a woman! Her braid can be seen on her left shoulder, and she actually looks concerned about the snake and Salammbo. The woman’s hands are also wrinkled and claw-like, which adds to her otherness in the shadows. However, her expression is intriguing. She presents a contrast to Salammbo, as she appears to be both darker-skinned and older. Salammbo’s representation, while an “exotic” woman, asserts that whiteness and youth are the ideal subject. It’s like how representations of figures like Cleopatra (while she was partially Greek) are presented as beautiful Anglo-Saxon women with dark makeup.

Comments are closed.