Pierre-Cécile Puvis de Chavannes, 'The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist', about 1869
Inspired by travels in Italy to abandon his technology studies for art, engineer manqué, Puvis de Chavannes’s archaic style heightens our sense of witnessing a mysterious event from the past.
He has chosen to show the moment just before the execution of Saint John the Baptist. John kneels with his body square on to us, but with his head turned to look at his traditional attribute – the cross in his hand.
The muscular executioner is poised to deliver the blow. Herod, King of Judea, stands behind John to his left, wearing a red cape. His daughter Salome, dressed in white, looks on, holding a dish to receive the severed head.
In the biblical story, Herod was so enchanted by beautiful Salome’s dancing that he offered her any gift she desired; she requested the head of John the Baptist. A staple subject of Christian art, by the 19th century the alluring Salome had become a symbol of dangerous female seductiveness and was depicted by artists as the archetypal femme fatale.
In this interpretation of the scene, Herod's features are said to resemble those of the writer Anatole France and Salome is said to take after Princess Marie Cantacuzène, who Puvis later married.
Puvis offers a markedly different subject matter and style to that of his Impressionist contemporaries Monet and Renoir, who sought to capture fleeting glimpses of modern life. Taking inspiration from the early Renaissance frescoes, which he had seen painted on church walls during time spent in Italy, here the artist imitates their flat, matt surfaces. The symmetrical composition is simplified in form, like an icon, with the figures frozen and purged of emotion. The large number of studies for this painting suggest that each pose was carefully considered in relation to the whole composition.
Puvis showed a smaller version of the same subject at the Paris Salon of 1870, now in the Barber Institute, Birmingham. The National Gallery picture was not exhibited in the painter's lifetime, and although he probably reworked it several times, it appears to be unfinished.