Almost 50 years before the world was introduced to The Batman in issue 27 of Detective Comics, the b-tier Academic artist Albert Joseph Pénot fused the mythical animal with the human form in his electrifying painting La Femme Chauve-Souris, The Bat Woman. While the caped crusader has gone on to decades of popularity, his female predecessor was nearly unknown since its exhibition in the Salon des Artistes Français in 1912, after which it disappeared into a private collection.
Artworks in private collections are rarely well documented, and often difficult to find any information on. But luckily for the bat-appreciating public, The Bat Woman re-emerged in 1979, when it was included in art historian Patrick Bade’s luridly titled book, Femme fatale: images of evil and fascinating women where it featured as the back cover image. The artwork popped up again in 2018 in a Sotheby’s auction titled Erotic: Passion & Desire, and thanks to the house’s high-quality photography, has been circling the fringes of popular culture ever sense.
La Femme Chauve-Souris is one of those strange artworks that you've probably seen before but you're not sure where. It’s immediately recognizable in its rigid symmetry, moody palette, and shameless nudity, but rarely attributed or even named. You may have seen it in a black and white tattoo, a vintage postcard, or a tattered poster hung in a dimly lit goth bar. The Bat Woman even appeared recently in the TV show What We Do in the Shadows, where it’s presented, unmodified, as a representation of the (fictional) Romani vampire Nadja (who is awesome).
Albert Joseph Pénot was not a particularly well-known artist in his day, deviating from the extravagantly detailed Orientalist portraits popular in the Academic art scene to focus exclusively on rendering the nude female body. Pénot painted The Bat Woman when he was in his late 20s or early 30s, and there’s an almost defiant naivete in its stiff composition and blunt eroticism. But while Pénot’s obvious obsession with female nudity mostly resulted in the same inviting displays of breasts and things and coy bedroom eyes as you'd find in many academic studios of his era, La Femme Chauve-Souris stands apart. Hovering, alight with occult power, she meets the male gaze with eyes full of fury, arms raised in an incantation. And we, the viewers, are her target.
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Reed Enger, "The Bat Woman," in Obelisk Art History, Published September 17, 2021; last modified November 07, 2022, http://www.arthistoryproject.com/artists/albert-joseph-penot/the-bat-woman/.