The episode is taken from the New Testament (Mark 6). Herod Antipas, Tetrarch of Galilee, entranced by Salome's dancing, offers her the object of her wishes. At the prompting of her mother, Herodias, she requests the head of John the Baptist on a plate. Salome's features are here thought to be based on those of the Princess Cantacuzène, who married Puvis de Chavannes in 1897. The figure of Herod standing on the right may be based on the novelist Anatole France.
The cross which Saint John the Baptist holds as the executioner prepares to strike is the focus of the composition. The static character of the design is mitigated by the figure of the executioner, recalling comparable figures in Delacroix and Chassériau.
Probably unfinished, this painting remained with the painter until the time of his death. A related composition is now in the Barber Institute in Birmingham.
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